Monday, May 11, 2015

Lessons from Richard Wright’s "Black Boy" Remain Relevant Today

In light of today's current events surrounding race relations, Richard Wright's memoir, “Black Boy,” is recommended reading for everyone.  Richard Wright, born on September 4, 1908, tells of his years growing up between two wars, in the South.  This time period occurred during the days of Jim Crow laws, prior to the Civil Rights Movement.  It was a time when Southern blacks lived in fear of the "White Terror."  The story begins in Mississippi where Richard and his family lived and worked on a cotton plantation. When World War I broke out and cotton couldn’t be exported, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee in search of employment.  Survival on Beale Street was difficult and the family broke apart when his father left.  Richard and his younger brother often went hungry because there wasn’t money for food.  While his mother did her best to make a living, by cooking for a white family, Richard roamed the streets and got an “unsavory education” from those who frequented the city’s saloons and taverns.  Despite the rough life he lived, his craving for knowledge motivated him to learn to read, leave the South, and as an adult become a profound and respected author.  The goal he hoped to achieve by telling of his struggles was to show white readers what it felt like to be black.  He wanted to break the stereotypical portrayal of black men as tolerant and subservient.  He was ashamed of the way his people were depicted as comical, and of the limitations that society placed on them.  As a member of the white race, I am ashamed by the way African Americans were treated.   I see similarities with inequality of justice today, just as Wright described in his own experiences.  Cases of police brutality are evident today in race relations and continue to make the news. Some are high-profile cases, such as the recent Freddie Gray example in Baltimore, Maryland.  Other instances are not reported or unnoticed as fears of racial tension continue to persist.   I recently read an article where the motives of ‘violent protests’ were described to send messages of hopelessness, depression, pain, internalized oppression, despair, anger, and poverty.  After reading this memoir, I know Richard Wright experienced all of these feelings as he was growing up.  I would like to encourage readers to pick up his book and try to understand the hurt so that one day change can truly become reality.  
This excerpt comes from a commentary on Julia Blount’s Facebook page: If you are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation that is a mark of your privilege. People of color cannot turn away. Race affects our lives every day. We must consider it all the time, not just when it is convenient.” (Dear whiteFacebook friends: I need you to respect what Black America is feeling right now)

Please join the WestJefferson Centennial Book Club at 6:00 p.m. on May 26 in Hotel Tavern to discuss Richard’s Wright’s “Black Boy.”  The film “Native Son,” based on a novel by Wright, will be shown in the library at 2:00 p.m. on May 30.

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