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Authors: Richard Wright

Tags: #Autobiography

Black Boy

Richard Wright
Black Boy (American Hunger)

A Record of Childhood and Youth

With a Foreword by Edward P. Jones

The Restored Text
Established by the Library of America

For
ELLEN
and
JULIA
who live always in my heart

The Signet paperback copies of BLACK BOY that the teacher
, Charlotte Crawford, distributed to her tenth graders in September 1965 had white covers with a large, rather abstract black fist dead in the center of those covers. Fist as in black power, I suppose, though none of her students had ever uttered those words. We were fifteen and sixteen years old, and we were new to high school, as Miss Crawford was new to teaching. The Negro students in that D.C. classroom had none of the consciousness that children of the same color and ages in the civil rights turmoil of Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia or South Carolina might have had. The riots in Washington, D.C., after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., were still a long time in the future. We knew worldly things, but it was not yet a very big world. At the top of the book’s cover, there were some rather complimentary words from a reviewer, but those words meant nothing to me. The book was only important because my teacher, one of the few arbiters in my life of what was good and what was not good, had given it to me. Below the reviewer’s words was Richard Wright’s name, which I had discovered two months before, and then the big words BLACK BOY under his name. Wright was nearly six years dead when Miss Crawford—a thin, short woman with eyeglasses and a warm nature—gave us the books, but his death and his life and his work meant nothing to me that afternoon. All of that and more were years and years away. The book was brand-new and it smelled new. Miss Crawford’s class had some twenty Negro children, and of the problems we had, poverty was perhaps foremost for most of us. A condition we did not have a
name for yet. Some of Miss Crawford’s students wanted to know if we could keep the books—for we could count all day and night the things that were tenuous in our lives. The teacher said they were ours to keep, and I have mine to this day. The cover is creased, the pages are dog-eared for I acquired the book before I knew how precious pages were. There are no underlined sentences. There are no notes in the margins. I had not learned that one could and should do those things; but even if I had known to do them, I would have been too amazed, too absorbed to stop. The only record I have of what I experienced as I read is the book itself and what is left of my memory. That edition of BLACK BOY with its red border was to be only the fourth book I ever read in my life.

I had not been a stranger to words—only to words that were unaccompanied by pictures. Before books without pictures of some sort, there were funny books—what the rest of the universe calls comic books—and books of fairy or folk tales, all of them illustrated with at least one picture.

In 1964, my sister and I stayed the entire summer with relatives in South Boston, Virginia. They passed the civil rights bill that summer and my cousins and their friends were excited about being able finally to use the white swimming pool, the only one in the area. It was no big holler for me—I couldn’t swim, for one thing, and in D.C., Negroes had a number of places to swim. I had brought some funny books down to South Boston, but by the first of July, I had read them all, as well as an old copy of
Time
that my aunt had lying around. Then, one afternoon, as I sat bored and lost on the porch of the tiny house my cousin and her husband lived in next door to my aunt and my other cousins, I picked up from a small table
Who Killed Stella Pomeroy
? It was a British mystery and it was the first book of any kind that I ever read that came with no pictures. I do not remember any of it, not one character, not who poor Stella was, and not who wanted her dead. There is only the unfailing memory of being thrust into a different world and seeing and knowing that world and its people simply with the words the author gave me. He said in his novel, word after word, that the place and the people were real and I believed him.

The next summer, 1965, my sister and I stayed with another aunt in Brooklyn, New York. From time to time, when my aunt went to clean someone’s house, we were left alone and I took to snooping. One day in a cabinet I came upon
Native Son
and
His Eye Is on the Sparrow
, the autobiography of the black actress Ethel Waters. They were the second and third books without pictures that I ever read. And the first books about black people. As I read on, Brooklyn’s Franklin Avenue, the world—in a thousand ways I could not have described—got smaller, if only because Wright’s Chicago and Waters’s midwest told me about territory beyond my own D.C., but territory that was nevertheless populated with people I had known, in one way or another, all my life. Even Bigger Thomas, though I had known him on a much smaller scale and in a far less violent and pathological way.

After
Who Killed Stella Pomeroy?
in 1964 in Virginia, I had returned to Washington and to funny books. But after that summer in Brooklyn in 1965, Miss Crawford gave me BLACK BOY in September, and before very long—certainly, if memory is doing right by me, way before Christmas—funny books were an almost nonexistent part of my life. Not long after I came back from Brooklyn, we had moved once again, for about the fifteenth or sixteenth time since I had come into the world. About once for every year of my life. I no longer had the sturdiness or the heart of a boy of eight or nine or ten who made friends easily in a new neighborhood, so I now had friends beyond those I saw during the school day. And I had been “pubertized,” though my first date was nearly four years away.

It is only in rereading BLACK BOY—and in reading for the first time the Chicago section of the book that was not in my Signet edition—that I see much of what held me some thirty years earlier. Wright was living a southern life I knew in the city: one of constant moving from one slum house to another—the heart wears out in having to pick itself up and make a new home so often. A treacherous landscape of crops and bad times and moonlit nights that I knew about from stories told by southern-born adults who had escaped to D.C.; a place where white people with unkind hearts were
as plentiful as fertile soil. A father out there somewhere who could have helped but who chose not to. (Wright was perhaps more forgiving. But for what my father did not do, I decided not to buy him a tombstone when he died. His grave may still be unmarked, though I have not seen it since the first time in 1975.) And in BLACK BOY, all the way through, I was again witness to the fear, day after day, that his mother—the one person who stood between him and a world that seemed to enjoy making widows and orphans—would be swept out of his life. Very little of this was in
Native Son
, and it helps explain why reading BLACK BOY again was like reading one’s journal that had not been opened for ages. I know this person, you sometimes say aloud; I know what he went through; and I know how far he has come.

At the back of my 1965 copy of BLACK BOY there were a few pages describing other books that Signet published and one by one I began ordering them, and the books I ordered had other back pages describing other books. Those I did not get by mail, I bought in Trover’s Bookstore on Eleventh Street. An autobiography of an impoverished black woman and her children living in a Brazilian
favella, Go Tell It on the Mountain; Invisible Man
. I do not know what happened to the funny books I owned in the last months of 1965. I don’t believe any of them survived the first months of 1966. I suppose some of them might be worth something today, depending upon their condition. My copy of BLACK BOY has value only to me.

Edward P. Jones
W
ASHINGTON
, D.C.
July 19 and 20, 2005

PART ONE
SOUTHERN NIGHT

 

His strength shall be hunger-bitten,
And destruction shall be ready at his side.


JOB

1

One winter morning in the long-ago, four-year-old days of my life I
found myself standing before a fireplace, warming my hands over a mound of glowing coals, listening to the wind whistle past the house outside. All morning my mother had been scolding me, telling me to keep still, warning me that I must make no noise. And I was angry, fretful, and impatient. In the next room Granny lay ill and under the day and night care of a doctor and I knew that I would be punished if I did not obey. I crossed restlessly to the window and pushed back the long fluffy white curtains—which I had been forbidden to touch—and looked yearningly out into the empty street. I was dreaming of running and playing and shouting, but the vivid image of Granny’s old, white, wrinkled, grim face, framed by a halo of tumbling black hair, lying upon a huge feather pillow, made me afraid.

The house was quiet. Behind me my brother—a year younger than I—was playing placidly upon the floor with a toy. A bird wheeled past the window and I greeted it with a glad shout.

“You better hush,” my brother said.

“You shut up,” I said.

My mother stepped briskly into the room and closed the door behind her. She came to me and shook her finger in my face.

“You stop that yelling, you hear?” she whispered. “You know Granny’s sick and you better keep quiet!”

I hung my head and sulked. She left and I ached with boredom.

“I told you so,” my brother gloated.

“You shut up,” I told him again.

I wandered listlessly about the room, trying to think of something to do, dreading the return of my mother, resentful of being neglected. The room held nothing of interest except the fire and finally I stood before the shimmering embers, fascinated by the quivering coals. An idea of a new kind of game grew and took root in my mind. Why not throw something into the fire and watch it burn? I looked about. There was only my picture book and my mother would beat me if I burned that. Then what? I hunted around until I saw the broom leaning in a closet. That’s it…Who would bother about a few straws if I burned them? I pulled out the broom and tore out a batch of straws and tossed them into the fire and watched them smoke, turn black, blaze, and finally become white wisps of ghosts that vanished. Burning straws was a teasing kind of fun and I took more of them from the broom and cast them into the fire. My brother came to my side, his eyes drawn by the blazing straws.

“Don’t do that,” he said.

“How come?” I asked.

“You’ll burn the whole broom,” he said.

“You hush,” I said.

“I’ll tell,” he said.

“And I’ll hit you,” I said.

My idea was growing, blooming. Now I was wondering just how the long fluffy white curtains would look if I lit a bunch of straws and held it under them. Would I try it? Sure. I pulled several straws from the broom and held them to the fire until they blazed; I rushed to the window and brought the flame in touch with the hems of the curtains. My brother shook his head.

“Naw,” he said.

He spoke too late. Red circles were eating into the white cloth; then a flare of flames shot out. Startled, I backed away. The fire soared to the ceiling and I trembled with fright. Soon a sheet of
yellow lit the room. I was terrified; I wanted to scream but was afraid. I looked around for my brother; he was gone. One half of the room was now ablaze. Smoke was choking me and the fire was licking at my face, making me gasp.

I made for the kitchen; smoke was surging there too. Soon my mother would smell that smoke and see the fire and come and beat me. I had done something wrong, something which I could not hide or deny. Yes, I would run away and never come back. I ran out of the kitchen and into the back yard. Where could I go? Yes, under the house! Nobody would find me there. I crawled under the house and crept into a dark hollow of a brick chimney and balled myself into a tight knot. My mother must not find me and whip me for what I had done. Anyway, it was all an accident; I had not really intended to set the house afire. I had just wanted to see how the curtains would look when they burned. And neither did it occur to me that I was hiding under a burning house.

Presently footsteps pounded on the floor above me. Then I heard screams. Later the gongs of fire wagons and the clopping hoofs of horses came from the direction of the street. Yes, there was really a fire, a fire like the one I had seen one day burn a house down to the ground, leaving only a chimney standing black. I was stiff with terror. The thunder of sound above me shook the chimney to which I clung. The screams came louder. I saw the image of my grandmother lying helplessly upon her bed and there were yellow flames in her black hair. Was my mother afire? Would my brother burn? Perhaps everybody in the house would burn! Why had I not thought of those things before I fired the curtains? I yearned to become invisible, to stop living. The commotion above me increased and I began to cry. It seemed that I had been hiding for ages, and when the stomping and the screaming died down I felt lonely, cast forever out of life. Voices sounded near-by and I shivered.

“Richard!” my mother was calling frantically.

I saw her legs and the hem of her dress moving swiftly about the back yard. Her wails were full of an agony whose intensity told me that my punishment would be measured by its depth. Then I
saw her taut face peering under the edge of the house. She had found me! I held my breath and waited to hear her command me to come to her. Her face went away; no, she had not seen me huddled in the dark nook of the chimney. I tucked my head into my arms and my teeth chattered.

“Richard!”

The distress I sensed in her voice was as sharp and painful as the lash of a whip on my flesh.

“Richard! The house is on fire. Oh, find my child!”

Yes, the house was afire, but I was determined not to leave my place of safety. Finally I saw another face peering under the edge of the house; it was my father’s. His eyes must have become accustomed to the shadows, for he was now pointing at me.

“There he is!”

“Naw!” I screamed.

“Come here, boy!”

“Naw!”

“The house is on fire!”

“Leave me ’lone!”

He crawled to me and caught hold of one of my legs. I hugged the edge of the brick chimney with all of my strength. My father yanked my leg and I clawed at the chimney harder.

“Come outta there, you little fool!”

“Turn me loose!”

I could not withstand the tugging at my leg and my fingers relaxed. It was over. I would be beaten. I did not care any more. I knew what was coming. He dragged me into the back yard and the instant his hand left me I jumped to my feet and broke into a wild run, trying to elude the people who surrounded me, heading for the street. I was caught before I had gone ten paces.

From that moment on things became tangled for me. Out of the weeping and the shouting and the wild talk, I learned that no one had died in the fire. My brother, it seemed, had finally overcome enough of his panic to warn my mother, but not before more than half the house had been destroyed. Using the mattress as a stretcher, Grandpa and an uncle had lifted Granny from her bed
and had rushed her to the safety of a neighbor’s house. My long absence and silence had made everyone think, for a while, that I had perished in the blaze.

“You almost scared us to death,” my mother muttered as she stripped the leaves from a tree limb to prepare it for my back.

I was lashed so hard and long that I lost consciousness. I was beaten out of my senses and later I found myself in bed, screaming, determined to run away, tussling with my mother and father who were trying to keep me still. I was lost in a fog of fear. A doctor was called—I was afterwards told—and he ordered that I be kept abed, that I be kept quiet, that my very life depended upon it. My body seemed on fire and I could not sleep. Packs of ice were put on my forehead to keep down the fever. Whenever I tried to sleep I would see huge wobbly white bags, like the full udders of cows, suspended from the ceiling above me. Later, as I grew worse, I could see the bags in the daytime with my eyes open and I was gripped by the fear that they were going to fall and drench me with some horrible liquid. Day and night I begged my mother and father to take the bags away, pointing to them, shaking with terror because no one saw them but me. Exhaustion would make me drift toward sleep and then I would scream until I was wide awake again; I was afraid to sleep. Time finally bore me away from the dangerous bags and I got well. But for a long time I was chastened whenever I remembered that my mother had come close to killing me.

Each event spoke with a cryptic tongue. And the moments of living slowly revealed their coded meanings. There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountainlike, spotted, black-and-white horses clopping down a dusty road through clouds of powdered clay.

There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.

There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.

There was the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down
upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.

There were the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese winging south against a bleak, autumn sky.

There was the tantalizing melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood.

There was the teasing and impossible desire to imitate the petty pride of sparrows wallowing and flouncing in the red dust of country roads.

There was the yearning for identification loosed in me by the sight of a solitary ant carrying a burden upon a mysterious journey.

There was the disdain that filled me as I tortured a delicate, blue-pink crawfish that huddled fearfully in the mudsill of a rusty tin can.

There was the aching glory in masses of clouds burning gold and purple from an invisible sun.

There was the liquid alarm I saw in the blood-red glare of the sun’s afterglow mirrored in the squared panes of whitewashed frame houses.

There was the languor I felt when I heard green leaves rustling with a rainlike sound.

There was the incomprehensible secret embodied in a whitish toadstool hiding in the dark shade of a rotting log.

There was the experience of feeling death without dying that came from watching a chicken leap about blindly after its neck had been snapped by a quick twist of my father’s wrist.

There was the great joke that I felt God had played on cats and dogs by making them lap their milk and water with their tongues.

There was the thirst I had when I watched clear, sweet juice trickle from sugar cane being crushed.

There was the hot panic that welled up in my throat and swept through my blood when I first saw the lazy, limp coils of a blue-skinned snake sleeping in the sun.

There was the speechless astonishment of seeing a hog stabbed through the heart, dipped into boiling water, scraped, split open, gutted, and strung up gaping and bloody.

There was the love I had for the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks.

There was the hint of cosmic cruelty that I felt when I saw the curved timbers of a wooden shack that had been warped in the summer sun.

There was the saliva that formed in my mouth whenever I smelt clay dust potted with fresh rain.

There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass.

And there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earthward from star-heavy skies on silent nights…

One day my mother told me that we were going to Memphis on a boat, the
Kate Adams
, and my eagerness thereafter made the days seem endless. Each night I went to bed hoping that the next morning would be the day of departure.

“How big is the boat?” I asked my mother.

“As big as a mountain,” she said.

“Has it got a whistle?”

“Yes.”

“Does the whistle blow?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“When the captain wants it to blow.”

“Why do they call it the
Kate Adams
?”

“Because that’s the boat’s name.”

“What color is the boat?”

“White.”

“How long will we be on the boat?”

“All day and all night.”

“Will we sleep on the boat?”

“Yes, when we get sleepy, we’ll sleep. Now, hush.”

For days I had dreamed about a huge white boat floating on a vast body of water, but when my mother took me down to the levee on the day of leaving, I saw a tiny, dirty boat that was not at all like the boat I had imagined. I was disappointed and when time
came to go on board I cried and my mother thought that I did not want to go with her to Memphis, and I could not tell her what the trouble was. Solace came when I wandered about the boat and gazed at Negroes throwing dice, drinking whisky, playing cards, lolling on boxes, eating, talking, and singing. My father took me down into the engine room and the throbbing machines enthralled me for hours.

In Memphis we lived in a one-story brick tenement. The stone buildings and the concrete pavements looked bleak and hostile to me. The absence of green, growing things made the city seem dead. Living space for the four of us—my mother, my brother, my father, and me—was a kitchen and a bedroom. In the front and rear were paved areas in which my brother and I could play, but for days I was afraid to go into the strange city streets alone.

It was in this tenement that the personality of my father first came fully into the orbit of my concern. He worked as a night porter in a Beale Street drugstore and he became important and forbidding to me only when I learned that I could not make noise when he was asleep in the daytime. He was the lawgiver in our family and I never laughed in his presence. I used to lurk timidly in the kitchen doorway and watch his huge body sitting slumped at the table. I stared at him with awe as he gulped his beer from a tin bucket, as he ate long and heavily, sighed, belched, closed his eyes to nod on a stuffed belly. He was quite fat and his bloated stomach always lapped over his belt. He was always a stranger to me, always somehow alien and remote.

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