Black Boy – Discussion Questions
Directions:For each of the following discussion items please find support for your responses from Black Boy.
1.One critic claims:“All of us can learn from the life story of Richard Wright.It is, on the one hand, a success story, the story of a man who achieved greatness in the face of almost insuperable obstacles.But it is also a story that illustrates that the wounds of youth can never be fully healed.”
Respond to this claim.In your response consider how Black Boy is similar to and is different from Ragged Dick as a “success story.”How does the theme of “self creation” develop in Black Boy?
2.Among the titles that Wright considered for this autobiographical novel was American Hunger.This probably would have been an appropriate title as hunger seems to be the most compelling force in Wright’s life.Or is it fear?Or is it freedom?Or is it violence?Or is it love of knowledge?Or is it his desire to flee the South and become a writer?How do you respond to the images in the book that deal with these issues?How do Wright’s choices, decisions, and actions allow him to overcome the nearly insurmountable trials he faces?
3.Does it bother you at all to know that many of Wright’s “facts” in Black Boy are fabrications or misrepresentations?For example, 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.Reactions from sensitive Southern whites are mainly left out, including those of a family that served as a second home and provided him with more understanding than his own family.
Wright never referred to Black Boy as an autobiography, and indeed the narrator is a composite of many characters in Wright’s boyhood.Wright claims he meant the work to be collective autobiography, a personalized record of countless black Americans growing up with a personal history of hunger, deprivation, and constant racism.Nevertheless, the story is largely Richard Wright’s narrative.And so what do you make of this “lying” motif that appears in the work?What are the various forms and functions of deception in the story?
4.Who is Richard Wright’s audience?How do you respond emotionally and intellectually to his story?
5.James Baldwin, another prominent African-American writer, criticized Wright for the belief that “in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual or intercourse.”You will have to admit that Wright’s description of the African-American culture is essentially bleak:the family, the religion, the education, the women, the work are represented negatively.Why does Wright say that there was an absence of real kindness in Negroes… “how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions, how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our despair” (37).Do you agree with Baldwin’s criticism?Can you justify Wright’s style from a literary, psychological, or political point of view?
6.Wright has been described by various critics as a naturalist, an existentialist, and a social determinist.Do a bit of research of these terms and decide how Wright does indeed fit in each category.
7.Choose any passage, paragraph, description, or event that especially impressed you (for whatever reason).Discuss with the class why the words moved you.
8.One criticism we had of Ragged Dick and Little Women was that they are “period pieces.”Is Black Boy also a cultural artifact?Does it in any way reflect African-American concerns or Caucasian concerns as we begin the 21st century?