I still remember, more than a dozen years ago, the first time I noticed the gold lettering of Black Boy climbing up the blue and brickred spine of my grandmother’s 1940’s edition of Richard Wright’s memoir. The book still stands out because the title on the spine reads in the opposite direction of every other book on my shelf. Though I hadn’t yet read it, my brother had told me enough about the book for me to recognize that it was an unusual thing to find in a small Memphis apartment occupied by a woman born during the very years the book described.
But I don’t find it difficult to imagine my grandmother—a Hungarian-born Jew whose family came to this country between World War I and the Great Depression—empathizing with this story of poverty, hunger, oppression, imagination, and migration. I don’t want to conflate the suffering of Jews and African Americans, as the rags-to-comfortable-middle-class life that my immigrant ancestors achieved over a few generations was hardly a possibility for most Black Americans. But I do believe deeply in the human capacity for empathy and solidarity, particularly among people who recognize each others’ struggles with the many-headed monster of oppression.
Though that vintage edition of Black Boy is one of the few objects I know my family held on to after my grandmother passed away more than a decade ago, it wasn’t until this year that I actually sat down with the book and read it. The way Wright’s youth was shaped by imagination, how transfixed he was by novels that described worlds utterly unlike his own, and the inexplicable / inescapable desire to write his own world, resonated with memories of my childhood. The empowerment literacy brought Wright also gave me cause to pause and reflect on my own work with the Literacy Narratives of Black Columbus Project, for which my students have been interviewing black poets about their writing and their lives, and which I’ll be writing more about here soon (You can check out past interviews from the project here).
But for the moment, I’d like to share with you one of the passages I found most captivating [contains spoilers], and which inspires me to continue hoping and laboring toward a world more just and creative than we are often taught to imagine. Below Wright contemplates how, living in Memphis during a time when expressing any dissatisfaction with the South or curiosity about the North might involve mortal danger, he formed and acted on the conviction that his only chance in life was to gamble on a journey Northward which he could not afford to make with any safety or certainty.
But what was it that made me feel that way? What was it that made me conscious of possibilities? From where in this southern darkness had I caught a sense of freedom? Why was it that I was able to act upon vaguely felt notions? What was it that made me feel things deeply enough for me to try to order my life by my feelings? The external world of whites and blacks, which was the only world that I had ever known, surely had not evoked in me any belief in myself. The people I had met had advised and demanded submission. What, then, was I after? How dare I consider my feelings superior to the gross environment that sought to claim me?
It had been only through books—at best, no more than vicarious cultural transfusions—that I had managed to keep myself alive in a negatively vital way. Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books; consequently, my belief in books had arisen more out of a sense of desperation than from any abiding conviction of their ultimate value. In a peculiar sense, life had trapped me in a realm of emotional rejection; I had not embraced insurgency through open choice. Existing emotionally on the sheer, thin margin of southern culture, I had felt that nothing short of life itself hung upon each of my actions and decisions; and I had grown used to change, to movement, to making many adjustments.
In the main, my hope was merely a kind of self-defence, a conviction that if I did not leave I would perish, either because of possible violence of others against me, or because of my possible violence against them. The substance of my hope was formless and devoid of any real sense of direction, for in my southern living I had seen no looming landmark by which I could, in a positive sense, guide my daily actions. The shocks of southern living had rendered my personality tender and swollen, tense and volatile, and my flight was more a shunning of external and internal dangers than an attempt to embrace what I felt I wanted.
It had been my accidental reading of fiction and literary criticism that had evoked in me vague glimpses of life’s possibilities. Of course, I had never seen or met the men who wrote the books I read, and the kind of world in which they lived was as alien to me as the moon. But what enabled me to overcome my chronic distrust was that these books—written by men like Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson, and Lewis—seemed defensively critical of the straitened American environment. These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it. And it was out of these novels and stories and articles, out of the emotional impact of imaginative constructions of heroic or tragic deeds, that I felt touching my face a tinge of warmth from an unseen light; and in my leaving I was groping toward that invisible light, always trying to keep my face so set and turned that I would not lose the hope of its faint promise, using it as my justification for action.