In the past several months I’ve been listening to lectures and reading course materials associated with the Open Yale Courses online program, which is one of the most valuable educational resources I’ve ever come across (and it’s free). The latest course I’ve been following is one on The American Novel Since 1945 taught by Amy Hungerford. Having been perennially behind in my reading of serious contemporary fiction (other than Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo) I thought I’d use this as my guide to the genre. The first book addressed in the course is Black Boy, an autobiographical text by Richard Wright (author of Native Son).
This book is one of the most emotionally powerful documents I’ve ever come across. I would compare it to another book about growing up black in America, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a riveting account of the travails of coming of age and reaching maturity in a hostile social environment. I found Richard Wright’s memoir in it’s eloquence and introspection even more effective in conveying to me the intensely claustrophobic experience of an intelligent black man coming of age in a culture that regards him as somewhat less than human, with a distrust that is amplified by projected guilt. At times the narrative is almost agonizing in its depiction of the maze of obstacles, both concrete and psychological that make it almost incomprehensible that anyone could survive, let alone escape the pre-ordained assumptions establishing a social order based on racial prejudice.
The book was written during the first half of the twentieth century, a time after the legal abolition of slavery but when the presumption of white privilege went mostly unquestioned by both parties in the racial equation. Richard Wright in his account, not only relates the circumstances of his environment but offers deep and penetrating analyses of the psychological structures that form the bulwarks supporting the world he describes.
I found the following passage profoundly accurate in its description of the tortured dilemma that lying at the core of the American character and still reverberating through our political culture today. Published in 1944, these words are not only descriptive and relevant in relation to our history, but prophetic in their description of an America torn apart by the arrogant and simplistic assumptions of exceptionalism and denial reinforced by religious bigotry and jingoistic bombast, making it all but impossible for us to deal effectively with even the most obvious situations presented by the real world:
“…I feel that for white America to understand the significance of the problem of the Negro will take a bigger and tougher America than any we have yet known. I feel that America’s past is too shallow, her national character too superficially optimistic, her very morality too suffused with color hate for her to accomplish so vast and complex a task. Culturally the Negro represents a paradox: Though he is an organic part of the nation, he is excluded by the entire tide and direction of American culture. Frankly, it is felt to be right to exclude him, and it is felt to be wrong to admit him freely. Therefore if, within the confines of its present culture, the nation ever seeks to purge itself of its color hate, it will find itself at war with itself, convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion. If the nation ever finds itself examining its real relation to the Negro, it will find itself doing infinitely more than that; for the anti-Negro attitude of whites represents but a tiny part – though a symbolically significant one – of themoral attitude of the nation. Our too young and too new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists on seeing the real world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness. Am I damning my native land? No; for I, too, share these faults of character! And I really do not think that America, adolescent and cocksure, a stranger to suffering and travail, an enemy of passion and sacrifice, is ready to probe into its most fundamental beliefs.”