Richard Wright's 'Black Boy' is an autobiographical portrait of growing up black in the South during the first part of the 1900s. Wright, whose political and cultural activities placed him at the centre of intellectual life in the United States, gives a vivid and terrifying depiction of the poverty, violence and psychological trauma that marked his life. Wright uses his writing to ask himself what, in his life and in his character, made the difference. Why was he unable to remain in the South, why couldn't he accept what so many people around him viewed as their given lot?
This lesson sequence looks at how Wright positions himself in his own narrative, how the social context is depicted, and how identity is formed. Questions related to Wright's role as writer and social critic are addressed.
Throughout the text, Wright's narration moves from vivid recollections of the past, placing himself in the position of the child or young man who is trying to make sense of events around him, to recollections and reflections from an adult point of view. This oscillation provides the reader with dramatic moments of tension and a sense of events unfolding - for the narrator as well as the reader - when Wright takes on the point of view of the child. It also allows Wright to draw conclusions about the significance of events in his character formation gradually and throughout the book.
It may be useful to read the lesson on narrative technique and then comment on the importance of narration, point of view, tense and dialogue in this extract. Consider how changing any one of these stylistic features changes the impact of the piece. A student sample is provided below.
Experimenting with changing narrative point of view, dialogue or description is a useful way of understanding how author's choices relate to their intended purpose. This simple table can be used with any number of texts to illustrate the relationship between style and effect.
Changing the narration as downloadable PDF.
|Original Black Boy||Rewrite of Black Boy|
|Point of view|
Specific Paper 2 type contextual consideration is important here. Richard's questions about names and skin color have deep historical and cultural implications.
What are the social implications of carrying your slave owner's name as your own?
- A discrepancy between Richard's perception of his grandmother's skin color and her identity as 'black' exists. Why might this be?
A moment of creative writing! Consider this classroom activity for students:
Free write your impressions and feelings (not paying attention to grammatical or spelling norms), based on one or more of the following prompts:
1. What is your first memory?
2. What was the most frightening moment in your life?
3. What was the first conversation you had this morning?
4. What event from you past do you now look back on with a new, maturer understanding?
The purpose of the writing is to help you see a few of the challenges and problems writers face when referring to their own pasts.
For the teacher: you may stimulate conversation by asking questions such as:
How much detail were you able to provide?
How accurate do you think your memory is?
Are you sure of the actual words that were said? If not, how did you overcome that obstacle?
- What makes events memorable?
Students may wish to share some of their memories, but their privacy needs to be respected too.
Richard's first memories
The first chapter of Black Boy presents the readers with a sequence of shocking and violent events. First, Richard almost burns the house down, and then, he is beaten so badly he almost dies. Later, he kills a kitten. These events show violence inflicted on him, and on helpless victims, such as small animals. Neither event shows the writer or his family in a positive light.
These three questions could be points of discussion, homework write-ups or in-class writing tasks.
What conclusions can the reader draw about why Richard Wright chose to focus on these events?
How do these events shape Richard's understanding of the world he lives in?
How does Wright's retelling of his first memories compare to yours?
Compare and contrast
A high school student from New York visited the South in the 1930s and published his observations and conclusions in his high school magazine. A copy of this article can be found here.
Imagine stepping back in time and visiting one of Richard Wright's schools in 300 words. What would you notice? What tone would you take?
How is the character 'Richard' established? Even as he grows up and matures, he has certain values that are apparent from a very young age. What are these characteristics and values? What words would you use to define Richard?
Often times it is easier to define one character in contrast to another. By looking for similarities and differences between two people we get to know them better. Below are two passages: one is taken from Black Boy, the other is a poem by Wole Soyinka called 'Telephone Conversation'. Look at the list of adjectives below and state which describe Richard, Wole or both. As you place each adjective in one of the boxes below, justify your answers with evidence from the text.
Richard and Wole worksheet as downloadable PDF.
|Richard||both Richard and Wole||Wole|
Social context: Jim Crow
Text 1: This article, published in 1933 in Virginia, addressed the problem of naming. After determining the main message of the piece, reread the first passage on this page, the exchange between Richard and his mother on the train on the subject of his white-looking grandmother and her socially defined blackness.
How does her life shed light on the final words of the article? You may also wish to refer to the page on naming in Part 1.
Text 2: Consider the following article from a weekly newspaper published by the Black community in the 1930s in North Carolina. This lesson may be linked to the Language and Mass Communication part of the course as well.
How does the author create a tone of moral indignation?
What information is provided about life in Alabama for Blacks?