|Black Boy | Richard Wright: Wearing the Mask
In the following excerpt, Adams offers his interpretation of Wright's Black Boy, arguing that its historical inaccuracies have deliberate, metaphorical purpose.
Like the autobiographies of Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson, Richard Wright's Black Boy, published in 1945, has confused readers because of its generic ambiguity. For many readers, the book is particularly honest, sincere, open, convincing, and accurate. But for others, Black Boy leaves a feeling of inauthenticity, a sense that the story or its author is not to be trusted. These conflicting reactions are best illustrated by the following representative observations by Ralph K. White and W. E. B. Du Bois. White, a psychologist, has identified [in "Black Boy"] "ruthless honesty" as "the outstanding quality which made the book not only moving but also intellectually satisfying." But Du Bois notes [in "Richard Wright Looks Back"] that although "nothing that Richard Wright says is in itself unbelievable or impossible; it is the total picture that is not convincing." Attempting to reconcile these opposing views, I wish to argue that both sides are correct; that the book is an especially truthful account of the black experience in America, even though the protagonist's story often does not ring true, and that this inability to tell the truth is Wright's major metaphor of self. A repeated pattern of misrepresentation becomes the author's way of making us believe that his personality, his family, his race—his whole childhood and youth—conspired to prevent him from hearing the truth, speaking the truth, or even being believed unless he lied.
For most readers, worries about Black Boy's trustworthiness stem from questions of genre. Although the book was clearly not called "The Autobiography of Richard Wright," its subtitle—"A Record of Childhood and Youth"—does suggest autobiography with some claim to documentary accuracy. The following descriptions of Black Boy reflect the confusion of readers: biography, autobiographical story, fictionalized biography, masterpiece of romanced facts, sort of autobiography, pseudoautobiography, part-fiction/part-truth autobiography, autobiography with the quality of fiction, and case history....
Although Wright seemed unsure of his book's generic identity, he never referred to Black Boy as autobiography. His original title, American Hunger, later used for the portion of his life story that began after leaving Memphis for Chicago, came after he had rejected The Empty Box, Days of Famine, The Empty Houses, The Assassin, Bread and Water, and Black Confession, all of which sound like titles for novels. When his literary agent suggested the subtitle "The Biography of a Courageous Negro," Wright responded with "The Biography of an American Negro," then with eight other possibilities including "Coming of Age in the Black South," "A Record in Anguish," "A Study in Anguish," and "A Chronicle of Anxiety." Such titles indicate his feeling that the book he had written was less personal, more documentary—a study, a record, a chronicle, or even a biography—than autobiography. Constance Webb reports [in Richard Wright] that Wright was uneasy with the word autobiography, both because of "an inner distaste for revealing in first person instead of through a fictitious character the dread and fear and anguishing self-questioning of his life" and because he realized that he would write his story using "portions of his own childhood, stories told him by friends, things he had observed happening to others," and fictional techniques.
Although some readers believe Wright gave in to the "strong desire to alter facts" and "to dress up" his feelings, the book's tendency to intermix fiction and facts is clearly part of both Wright's personal literary history and the Afro-American literary tradition in which he was writing. The form of Black Boy in part imitates the traditional slave narrative, a literary type that allowed for a high degree of fictionality in the cause of abolition. A number of major works of literature by black Americans, such as Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folks, Toomer's Cane, and Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, feature mixtures of genres; and Wright, simultaneously a poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, playwright, and actor, often used the same material in different genres. For example, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow " first appeared as an essay and was later attached to the stories of Uncle Tom's Children, one of which, "Bright and Morning Star," is retold in Black Boy as a tale that held the protagonist in thrall, even though he "did not know if the story was factually true or not." When "Black Boy" says that the story is emotionally true, he reflects exactly the kind of truth Wright wants his readers to respond to in Black Boy. Some of the characters in Black Boy have been given fictional names, whereas Bigger Thomas, the central character in the fictional Native Son, is the real name of one of Wright's acquaintances. That he used real names in fiction and fictional names in nonfiction is typical of Richard Wright, who further confounded the usual distinctions between author and persona by playing the role of Bigger Thomas in the first film version of Native Son.
Richard Wright makes clear that Black Boy is not meant as a traditional autobiography by presenting much of the story in the form of dialogue marked with quotation marks, a technique that suggests the unusual degree of fiction within the story. Although critics often point to Wright's first novel, Native Son (1940), as the other half of Black Boy, another model for this autobiographical work was his more recently completed Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the American Negro in the United States (1941). Writing Black Boy in the spirit of folk history seemed a reasonable thing to do, and Wright apparently saw no hypocrisy in omitting personal details that did not contribute to what he was simultaneously thinking of as his own story and the story of millions of others. Wright's claim to be composing the autobiography of a generic black child is reinforced by the narrator's particular reaction to racism: "The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness."
[Most] of the omission in Black Boy is designed not to make the persona appear admirable but to make Richard Wright into "Black Boy," to underplay his own family's middle-class ways and more positive values. Wright does not mention that his mother was a successful school teacher and that many of his friends were children of college faculty members; he omits most of his father's family background and his own sexual experiences. Also mainly left out are reactions from sensitive southern whites, including those of the Wall family to whom, we learn from Michel Fabre's biography [The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright], "he sometimes submitted his problems and plans ... and soon considered their house a second home where he met with more understanding than from his own family."
In addition to omissions, name changes, poetic interludes, and extensive dialogue, Black Boy is replete with questionable events that biographical research has revealed to be exaggerated, inaccurate, mistaken, or invented. The section of Fabre's biography dealing with the Black Boy years is characterized by constant disclaimers about the factuality of the story. Some omissions can be explained because the urbane ex-Communist who began Black Boy "wanted to see himself as a child of the proletariat," though "in reality he attached greater importance to the honorable position of his grandparents in their town than he did to his peasant background." Although these distortions are acceptable to many, especially in light of Wright's intention of using his life to show the effects of racism, numerous other manipulations are less acceptable because they are more self-serving.
Most of these incidents are relatively minor and might be judged unimportant; however, the misrepresentations in two of the book's most important episodes—the high school graduation speech and the story of Uncle Hoskins and the Mississippi River—might be less acceptable. "Black Boy's" refusal to deliver the principal's graduation speech rather than his own is apparently based on truth, but the version in Black Boy leaves out the important fact that Wright rewrote his speech, cutting out more volatile passages, as a compromise. The story of Uncle Hoskins does not ring true, for how could a boy whose life had been so violent to that point be scared of his uncle's relatively harmless trick? He says of his Uncle Hoskins, "I never trusted him after that. Whenever I saw his face the memory of my terror upon the river would come back, vivid and strong, and it stood as a barrier between us." One reason the tale feels false is that the whole story—complete with the above revelations about Uncle Hoskins—actually happened to Ralph Ellison, who told it to Richard Wright [see Webb, p. 419].
For many critics, including Edward Margolies, these deliberate manipulations reduce Black Boy's authenticity as autobiography because they set up doubts about everything, the same doubts that resonate through the remarks of black writers from Du Bois to Baldwin to David Bradley, all of whom have persisted in taking Black Boy's protagonist to be Richard Wright. But, "Richard Wright is not the same person as the hero of that book, not the same as T or 'Richard' or the 'Black boy,' not by several light years," argues James Olney, [in "Some Versions of Memory/Some Versions of Bios"], who refers to the book's chief character as "black boy," explaining that "by means of an encompassing and creative memory, Richard Wright imagines it all, and he is as much the creator of the figure that he calls 'Richard' as he is of the figure that, in Native Son, he calls 'Bigger.'" Olney's idea that the central figure be treated as a single person referred to as "black boy," a literary character representing the actual author both as a child and as an adult—the famous writer imagining himself as representative of inarticulate black children—is finally convincing. That seems to be what Richard Wright meant to do, what he said he had done, and what he did...
The opening scene suggests the whole atmosphere of the book—a desperate fear of meaningless visitations of violence without context, a life of deliberate misrepresentations of the truth and complete distrust of all people, a world in which "each event spoke with a cryptic tongue." Throughout Black Boy, Wright presents a lonely figure whose life does not ring true because "that's the way things were between whites and blacks in the South; many of the most important things were never openly said; they were understated and left to seep through to one." Thus all actions are tempered by a subtext, which is obvious to everyone, a strategy that the author claimed to have discovered when he delivered his Fisk University oration.
Whenever the narrator questions his mother about racial relationships, she is defensive and evasive. "I knew that there was something my mother was holding back," he notes. "She was not concealing facts, but feelings, attitudes, convictions which she did not want me to know," a misrepresentation that disturbs "black boy" who later says, "My personality was lopsided; my knowledge of feeling was far greater than my knowledge of fact." Although the narrator holds back or conceals facts, he is usually straightforward about emotional feelings, even though he can say, "The safety of my life in the South depended upon how well I concealed from all whites what I felt." Worrying less about factual truth, Wright was determined to stress the emotional truth of southern life to counteract the stereotypical myths shown in the song that prefaced Uncle Tom's Children: "Is it true what they say about Dixie? Does the sun really shine all the time?".
The actual audience must narrow the gap between the narrative and authorial audiences; the reader of Black Boy must strive to be like the narrator of Black Boy, must keep what is happening at a particular moment and the entire history of black-white relations—the content and the context—together in his or her mind. Wright's context includes the need to speak simultaneously as an adult and as a child and to remove everything from his story that, even if it happened to be true, would allow white readers to maintain their distorted stereotype of southern blacks. He was searching for a way to confess his personal history of lying, forced on him by his childhood, while still demonstrating that he could be trusted by both black and white.
Wright's words are not self-pitying; instead, he is presenting a naive youth who was never good at lying or exaggerating. The misrepresentation is so obvious that only a particularly inept liar would attempt it, a child who did not want to be good at lying. Only an outsider, such as "black boy," to the established systems of lying by both races, a representative of the many black adolescents then coming of age—what Wright hoped would be a new generation of the children of Uncle Tom, no longer willing to accept the old lie that the best way to fight racism was to lie through both omission and commission—could fail to distinguish between melodrama and genuine oppression and could be so surprised at the power of his words.
Black Boy should not be read as historical truth, which strives to report those incontrovertible facts that can be somehow corroborated, but as narrative truth. The story that Richard Wright creates in Black Boy, whatever its value as an exact historical record, is important both in telling us how the author remembers life in the pre-Depression South and in showing us what kind of person the author was in order to have written his story as he did. Although he is often deliberately false to historical truth, he seldom deviates from narrative truth. In Black Boy, Wright has made both the horrifyingly dramatic and the ordinary events of his life fit into a pattern, shaped by a consistent, metaphoric use of lying.
Source: Timothy Dow Adams, "Richard Wright: 'Wearing the Mask,'" in his Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography, The University of North Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 69-83.