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Quest for identity

Richard Wright was the breakthrough man who came all the way up from all the way down. He was suckled on resentment, nurtured on anger, grew up on rootlessness, and tested every violent flavor of alienation and hostility. But his bitter rootlessness, resentment, alienation and hostility are the creations of poverty and humiliations attendant upon racism led him, through the grim determination of his personality to blaze a trail that opened new worlds to countless young blacks.

The Black’s search for identity has been the subject of many works of fiction in American literature. Starting from Harriet Beecher Stowe, a number of full-length novels dealing with the Blacks and their problem of identity have been published. In recent American fiction, black American novels have carved a niche for themselves. Richard Wright has taken the world by storm through two of his epoch-making novels-Black Boy and Native Son.

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Having learnt that literature could be social weapon, Wright ruthlessly forced his America to look at how the ‘Monster Nigger’ was the inevitable pathological result of fear, shame, guilt and anger. His unrelentingly honest creation of Bigger Thomas, in his most powerful book Native Son revealed the connection of a national culture between the rural black south of Mississippi and the urban black north of Chicago.

In his autobiography, Black Boy which traces his life from a four-year old up to the period when he boards a train for the north, Richard Wright punctuates his account here and there with the consciousness that he is a Black. This awareness comes to him casually and moves him in a big way. Right from his childhood days, Richard Wright had rebelled against convention. His search for identity makes him brave to fight against all odds.

The predicament of the Black is spelt out in the motto of the book itself. It is taken from the Old Testament, from the Book of Job. “They meet with darkness in the day time/ And they grope at noonday as in the night ….” (Job 5:14)

There can be no better account of the Blacks dilemma. This is the case with most of the colored men. But there are people like Richard Wright who went to prove it wrong. The whole autobiography is about his struggle to escape from the common predicament of the Blackman. Richard Wright does not want to take things lying down. He believes in retaliation and at times he appears to be militant in his attitude. This chapter tries to explore the Quest for identity in The Black Boy.

In her introductory Note, Dorothy Car field Fisher calls this autobiography ‘the honest, dreadful, heart-breaking story of a Black childhood and youth’. () It is certainly honest and dreadful but certainly not heart-breaking. Richard Wright may be living in poverty; He talks about hunger quite casually as if he were talking about a disease he is stricken with. There is a sort of objectivity seen in his narration. So there is nothing heart-breaking about it. The readers do not meet here an Oliver Twist who asks for more but a black boy who is willing to settle for the less he gets.

The novel Native Son and the autobiography Black Boy go together fiction and fact, the twin of Richard Wright’s career. These take us into the mind of a single boy in America, one destroyed by crippling hate and the other making an extraordinary survival. Black Boy is a South American story. It is the story of the country, where a boy learns painfully and gradually the curse and limps beneath the blows he receives. “…. From Franklin’s ‘Autobiography’ to Richard Wright’s ‘Black Boy’ and Frederick Exley’s ‘A Fan’s Notes’, we have the epic of personal struggle, a situation rather than a plot”. (Stone 367)

In Black Boy, Wright vividly narrates the struggle a Black has to undertake right from the cradle. It is a record of a Black child, trapped between a hateful family and a hostile world. In writing this book, he does not break any new literary ground and establish new techniques or devices or methods in any literary sense. But he makes the readers to see his experience which is new to them. And

All these first experiences, which nearly every boy shares with him: revolt against the father, meeting death and being told about it, facing older and stronger boys, quarrelling and fighting with them, seeing prisoners for the first time, hearing about murder by lynching, getting curious about sex through the lowest channels possible, seeing his mother suffer, being rejected, refused, maltreated. (Richter F.K. 170)

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Wright himself is the protagonist in Black Boy and he is the sufferer. He does not become the object of the book but he is the subject of it. The subject’s continuing cry in all the battle is: “No compromise”. So “Wright set himself a conscious problem, the explication of the quality of will the Negro must possess to live and die in a country which denies him humanity”. (McCall 107)

In Black Boy, Wright tells the story of his first 18 years in Natchez and Jackson, Mississippi Elaine, Arkansas, and on Beale street in Memphis. At four, he sets fire to his own home in play and is burned alive. He is beaten for this childish error until he is delirious and nearly dies. He strangles a kitten because it keeps his father awake. His mother reprimands him for his killing of the cat and sends him into dark night to bury the kitten while he recites the guilt. His miserable family is forced to move, time and time again. His father deserts the family- and the boy comes face to face with the sordid conflict between parents, who are themselves the victims of a cruel system, cruel neighbours, and a cruel fate. When his mother is away at work, he roams in the streets of Jackson, sneaks into saloons and begs drinks from customers who teach him obscenities and laugh at his drunken staggers. He is then six years old.

Wright’s relatives were respectable, hard-working people. Richard’s uncles and aunts are solid, successful people: school teachers, carpenters, mail carriers. When his mother falls ill, they come forward to pay for her operations and care. She is in bed for ten years. He recollects his mother’s suffering and its impact on him.

My mother’s suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness; the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden days and hours …. A somberness of spirit that I was never to lose settled over me during the slow years of my mother’s unrelieved suffering, a somberness that was to make me stand apart and look upon excessive joy with Suspicion, that was to make me keep forever on the move, as though to escape a nameless fate seeking to overtake me. (BB 96)

Inspite of the helping hands extended by Wright’s relatives, there was grimness in the family environment that left its scars upon the boy.

After I had outlived the shocks of childhood, after the habit of reflection had been born in me….I used to mull over the strange 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. (BB 45)

Rather than being uninhibited children of nature, as whites liked to believe, the Blacks were actually confused, fearful and uncertain. “Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full sprit of western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it”. (BB 45)

Wright’s keen intelligence and touchy independence made it difficult for him to hold a job. Richard sells papers, works in a drugstore, a credit clothing store, a brickyard, an optical factory. He is hopeless at each job. He could not cover up his feelings. He forgets to say “Sir”, or says it too slowly. He does not know how to get out of white people’s way. The other Blacks privately talk a venomous unrelieved hatred of the whites, but joke and laugh in their presence. But Richard could not. In other words, most white employers demanded of their Black employees a grinning deference that Wright found it difficult to simulate. On one job, white fellow- employees hazed him until he quit. On another carousing whites brained him with an empty whiskey bottle because he forgot to say “Sir”, on a third a white watchman threatened him with a revolver because Wright showed his distance for the watchman’s fanny-slapping ways with the Black maids. “I had begun capping with the white world too late”,” Wright wrote, “I could not make subservience an automatic part of my behavior”. (BB 215) He could see how other Blacks adapted, how they acted out the roles that the white race had mapped out for them. These Blacks found an outlet for their frustrations in gambling, drinking and wrenching, but Wright could not settle for these shabby substitutes for real achievement.

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He does better as a bellboy. The naked white prostitutes pay no attention to him when he delivers bootleg whiskey to their rooms, though their customers sometimes object. Because he has never been in jail, he is picked by racketeers as front for a movie- ticket racket. He makes fifty dollars in the first week. But he knows he is headed for the chain gang. He saves his money, steals everything he can lay lands on, pawns it, and flees to Memphis. There he begins to read Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, and to see the white men around him in a different light. His reading also gives him a profound awareness of his people’s plight.

The book opens with the house burning down. Young Richard at four sets fire to his own home in play. It is a winter night so he cannot play outside, his granny is ill so he cannot make noise inside. So does he set fire to the house and for this he is beaten until he is delirious and nearly dies.

The scene sets the pitch for the book as a whole: thought, someone is in deep trouble, wasting away, sick in the immediate vicinity of a new and even ghastlier trouble. Out of boredom and sickness, is a fire. Everywhere in the book Wright is showing us the ennui, the varieties of illness, and the explosions are hopelessly linked together in an unending and unbreakable circle of oppression. (McCall 111).

As in the case of his Protagonists, it is also the same pattern of struggle with Wright. That is he struggles with his family and community and later with society. His childhood is a terror-haunted one. He hates his father when the father stumbles home from his night job and complains of the children’s noise, and later when he deserts the family. His miserable family is always on the move from one place to another. In the process, he is tossed between his granny and mother; his uncle and aunt. His grandmother is against his reading books. She is a devout Christian. And Richard “simply can’t feel religion.”(BB 126) Because, “Religion for him became a terrible prison, its rigid restrictions actually keeping him from food and learning. He was constantly fleeing, constantly hunted, constantly fearing”. (Burns 128)

Even his mother’s illness and anguish do not turn him to religion. His grandmother believes that his mother’s illness should force him to his knees to beg for divine intervention. Instead, Wright is a rebel, a disobedient, a sinner. He believes that the universe is chaotic, despairing. “I’ll never feel God, I tell you. It’s no use”. (BB 126) He tells a friend. He narrates further:

During our talk I made a hypothetical statement that summed up my attitude toward God and the suffering in the world, a statement that stemmed from my knowledge of life, as I had lived, seen, felt, and suffered it in terms of dread, fear, hunger, and loneliness. (BB 127)

Richard is of the opinion that there are a few people on earth who believe more fervently than blacks, and yet their lives have been a continuum of disaster and turmoil. Yet his grandmother, Margaret persists in trying to move him toward accepting Christ and in her endeavours she finds a willing ally. Addie, Wright’s youngest aunt, is as devout as her mother. She makes Richard to be put into the school in which she is a teacher.

Wright had problems in the school with Aunt Addie as the only teacher. As he had come from another plane of living, he could not mingle with his classmates. As he says, “I had to curb my habit of cursing, but not before I had shocked more than half of them and had embarrassed Aunt Addie to helplessness”. (BB 116)

He had a serious conflict with Aunt Addie which flared up openly. He was accused of eating walnuts in the classroom. When Aunt Addie asked him to stand up, he did not move. He was given a severe lashing as a result. When she tried to teach him manners in the house that day, the rebel in Wright erupted. Wright says”,

I stood fighting, fighting as I had never fought in my life, fighting with myself….In her veins my own blood flowed, in many of her actions I could see some elusive part of my own self; and in her speech. I could catch some echoes of my own self. (BB 119)

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Though he did not want to be violent with her, he was not prepared to be punished for a wrong he had never committed.

Thus he feels that these women (mother, grandmother, and aunt) are attempting to control his words, deeds, thoughts to make acquiescence the price of acceptance by them. Instead, independence seems increasingly attractive to him. “Richard’s home life was a mixture of ignorance, poverty, and superstition with constant bickering culminating in violence toward the rebellious boy who could cope with it by returning the violence”. (Laycock 125)

Accompanying these everyday horrors of life is always hunger. “There were hours when hunger would make me weak, would make me sway while walking, would make my heart give a sudden wild spurt of beating that would shake my body and make me breathless”(BB 140). And he also learns through his mother’s grim backing how to withstand the terror of life. One day when boys waylay him on the way to grocery and take away his money, his mother sends him again to grocery and again they take away his money. Again his mother sends him with a warning that without buying articles, he cannot enter into the house. And again he goes with money and takes a club and fights them back.

Thus “what Richard learns is that he must either fight or be a victim.” (Payne 63). But he should not fight with the whites. That’s what his mother says when he is at school; at school he fights with the white children. These fights between blacks and whites are fought on equal ground. Similar weapons are available to each: rocks, pieces of coal, broken bottles, and twisted sticks of iron. On one such occasion, Wright is hurt by a missile thrown by one of the whites. His mother is terrified at the sight of his wound. She is even more terrified at the fact that he has been fighting whites. He is beaten. Here is another lesson to be learned which is quite opposite to one he has learnt at Memphis where he has fought with black boys. While he should oppose and fight the blacks for his rights, he should not do the same with the whites. This is the pattern of Black life in the south:

Wright’s mother not only instructs him in the high moral values of civilized society, but she also teaches him how to survive in a hostile and improvised environment. She teaches him “the ethics of living Jim Crow”. She frequently whips him because she knows that certain small gestures of self-pride and assertion would lead readily to brutality or death. (Porter 59)

For the young boy, the first experience with white terror is when uncle Hoskins is killed. At nine years of age, it is his most traumatic experience, and he has no preparation for it. “Terror was his companion night and day, violence the norm of all experience.” (Prescott 128) The Young Richard is unnerved by the rapidity of events. He is angered as well as frightened by the sudden murder of his uncle. And he is somewhat contemptuous that his mother and Aunt Maggie are too cowardly to confront those responsible. If they want to avert more violence, flight is the only way.

So they move to settle in the small industrial town of West Helena among its large population. The two women, Richard’s mother and aunt, are soon at work in the homes of Whites, and the two boys, Richard and his brother, join the bands of roaming neighbourhood children. A short time after they have settled in West Helena, Maggie begins an affair with a man known to Richard as Professor Mathews. But he is also involved in an affair with a white woman. Attempts to sever the relationship have produced threats from the woman. Mathews is very much aware of the dangers of a white woman’s threats. Because of the number of black men who have been lynched and castrated for severing relationship with old paramours is legend. Unable to extricate himself, Mathews murders the woman and sets fire to her house. Now in fear of his life, Mathews is running away and taking Maggie with him. The boy now knows enough about the white terror to understand Mathew’s predicament.

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