My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I love (yet hate) this book and its ilk because they are so eventful, so full of (unpleasant) happenings. And the best (or worst) part is that it all happened -- our predecessors really did struggle and strain to give us the pleasant, even uneventful lives they always wanted -- not withstanding occasional straying from the strictest truth in this particular book, but I'll get to that later. These journeys, particularly those of African Americans, have elements of both the attractive and the repulsive. Odi et amo* as Catullus put it (Sing it, Daddy-O! Sing it!) or as Wright himself puts it, "The Horror and the Glory."
By page 22 of the narrative, when Richard is only six years old, he has already been through a horrible array of experiences. The book opens with a four-year-old Richard accidentally burning down the family house while playing with matches. At the same age he hangs and kills a cat because his father, in anger, "told" him to. His father does not punish Richard so as not to seem as going back on his word. His mother, however, is outraged on moral grounds and forces Richard to bury the cat; needless to say, he is very remorseful and never commits such acts of wanton violence again. This is the first example in a long line, however, of Richard's manipulation of language for his own ends.
Richard's father soon separates from his mother and abandons the family to live with another woman. Richard was to meet his father again only after some fifteen years in hopes of reconciliation; the gorge between them, however, proved to be too wide and perilous. At age six, Richard was in the habit of wandering the neighborhood while his mother was at work; he liked especially to hang around on the doorstep of a saloon. One day, a man grabs him by the shoulder, brings him into the bar, and buys him a drink. Soon he is quite drunk and people are giving him small coins to blurt out lewd things that he does not understand. This went on for some time, it seems: "I was a drunkard in my sixth year, before I had begun school." This unpleasant ordeal finally ends when his mother puts him and his brother under the watchful care of an old black woman. "The craving for alcohol finally left and I forgot the taste of it."
Oh, how horrible! How awful! Yet I can't look away... The book continues in this fashion, a parade of horrible happenings underscored by a near-constant hunger, throughout the first section, "Southern Night." Richard bounces around, or rather gets bounced around, the South and experiences a series of setbacks -- just when life seems decent enough, livable even, his circumstances change and he is swiftly moved onward. The second and final part, "The Horror and the Glory," tells of Wright's experiences in Chicago after moving out of the South, in his early manhood. This last one hundred or so pages was cut by Wright for the initial publication in 1945 at the instigation of the Book of the Month Club. Only in 1990 were the two parts reunited as the whole the author originally intended.
At first hearing of this, I assumed the motivations to be entirely political and social. Chicago, I assumed, was not the land of milk and honey Wright had expected. The average white Northerner of the 1940s -- ie the primary Book of the Month Club audience -- surely had no such complications in their black-and-white, North-and-South worldview. ("On a cold and gray Chicago morning/a poor little baby child is born...") Then there is Communism: the majority of this second section deals with Wright's joining the John Reed Club and the Communist Party, and his later struggles with the leadership of these organizations. In 1945, the First Red Scare was not too long ago and the age of McCarthyism was just around the corner. "The 'C' Word" has long had a chilling effect on many a middle- and upper-class spine.
But no: all my speculation seems to have been for nought. Though I may never know for sure -- unpublished correspondence between Wright and a Book of the Month club higher-up remains firmly locked behind ivory in the archives of Princeton and Yale -- I see the motives of chopping off the second section 'fore publication as merely stylistic. The second part drags -- it's boring -- and as a consequence, it tends to drag the rest of the book with it.
The only part of the second section I found entirely worthwhile is that which describes Wright's time working as a janitor at a high-class Chicago hospital. Once, two old, black colleagues got into a fight in the break room which ultimately resulted in them knocking down and opening dozens of cages of testing animals. They, with Richard's help, put the things back in their cages and were never caught, though they could never be sure if they placed them correctly, if they botched or else temporarily reprieved the research of their white doctor employers. Then there is the telling tale of Richard's step cleaning. Always he is called upon to clean the steps of the institution, always the white passers-by step onto the steps he is working on, spreading dirty water onto other steps, making more work for him; never in his tenure did a person politely step over. And last there is the allegory of the silently barking dogs: Wright often had to hold testing dogs down while doctors snipped their vocal cords; often he would see them howling silently towards the ceiling. The comparisons were too tantalizingly appropriate to pass up.
All talks of Communism, particularly of the petty in-fighting and quibbling Wright had with his superiors and fellows in the Party, are simply tedious and against the overall impression of the book. I understand: the Party whole-heartedly accepted him; I understand: this was the first group (of predominantly whites, no less) that accepted him as a person, as a comrade even. But the quibbling overpowers these undercurrents -- perhaps they could have been brought to the fore through careful, proper pruning.
Despite my own quibbling over the second half, I cannot but love this book. We are so much alike, the author and I, it is uncanny. We have been shaped by very different lives, but we both turned out atheist yet morally firm, sensitive, strong-willed...naively altruistic. No. We know it is impossible, yet it is necessary: the people of the world must unite and see each other as the siblings they are. Someday...
Our feet back on the ground... Wright and I even have almost identical views of American race relations. He was made to suffer the indignities from white individuals, and even came to see whites as one angry mass, yet he never came to hate them. All those who have been fired by the aggressive, even militant words of Malcolm X should have this book second on their reading list. Malcolm taught me the phrase "self-degradation" and told me to hate it, while Richard has given me new eyes on the subject. He was well aware of these black-on-black crimes instigated by white oppression, but instead of working himself into a blind rage, instead of driving a wedge further between the two races, Wright manipulated the system, to get what he wanted. The most striking and memorable example comes when the young Richard forges a note so he can borrow some books from the library: "Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy -- I used the word 'nigger' to make the librarian feel I could not possibly be the author of the note -- have some books by H.L. Mencken?" Where is your X now?
But enough about me! Let's hear about the "Every Man!" Black Boy and the original title American Hunger are titles that make no claim to autobiography. Instead, they are general titles, "Every Man" titles -- the first a hearkening to the eternal boy-ness of American black men of the day, the second an evocation of the eternal hunger, both physical and metaphorical, of all poor, Southern blacks. In this view it is the story of a non-particular person of a particular time and place.
In this view, Wright is justified in his bending, twisting, and even outright contamination of Fact. One story, for example, wherein one of Richard's uncles drives a horse cart into a (shallow part of) a river as a kind of practical joke on Richard, in Fact happened to Ralph Ellison. An even more outrageous fib comes later, when Richard is chosen as valedictorian of his class and is asked to write a speech. He does so but his principal decides that he ought to recite a speech he wrote, instead. Richard, in the story, refuses and gives his own speech in full; in reality, he capitulated. Fact checking: because Louis Armstrong didn't really land on the moon or win the Tour de France.
Taken as fiction all anxieties about the truthfulness of Black Boy can be disregarded. That is the route William Faulkner took, when he wrote to Wright shortly after the book's publication, and here I must agree. Though I sharply question the term "Every Man," though I have always been indifferent at best toward the political and social impact of literature, here I must agree. Taken as literature, as merely a piece of art, this book simply shines. To that I can say "amo" all by itself and leave the "odi et" to Catullus.
* Note: odi et amo ("I hate and I love") are the opening words of the two-line poem known conventionally as "Catullus 85."
View all my reviews on Goodreads >>