How violence makes us who we are: Black Boy
Black Boy has a lot to do with violence, and things people should not be subjected to. It is life however and it is something we all must face. It’s inevitable for us, and an obstacle that we must overcome or we will be stuck in the background. Some things in life we are not able to get around, such as death and taxes. Another one of these is a struggle for control through aggressive behavior to show ones dominance in a group. Let that group be family, friends, or co-workers. Richard Wright clearly states this in his book, Black Boy that the road to being on top will leave a trail of blood and hurt. The main character, Richard (A character who is an autobiographical character as well as a fictional character) must fight his way through poverty to become something more. He fights kids from his block when he was young, then he fought society by trying to break a stereotype. People would be compelled to read it to follow the story of Richard and seeing how he pulls himself from nothing to someone who still has nothing, but has self respect.
Some people might not like this book at first because of how violent it is. Through most of “Black Boy” and the start of “American Hunger” It seemed to all have to common redundant theme of abuse and the use of fists. The book starts with an opening of anger and attacks. Abuse in families doesn’t help the child become better; it makes them more angry and less likely for them to change. Many parts of this book really show that idea. From where he gets beaten and to where he fights because his mother demands it of him. The root of violence stems from family and it is only making the family more separate. Throughout the book, Richard’s mother is always beating him for what he does. For saying that someone will eat all the chicken, or to just putting something away the wrong way.
This book, though sad but true, reminds me can remind people of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kamph. Both books are very strong in how they present their points as well as they have a following that numbers in the hundreds. Each book uses the underlying message of violence to achieve what one wants. Hitler killed many many people but Richard Wright killed none. But both books were plagued with words of hate (Anti-Semitic from Hitler and anti-black from Wright) that would hurt a majority of people if they did not understand what they were doing. Both books however are very redundant. The theme of violence comes up in both books countless times so eventually it turns into a blur of hate and work that must be thought of critically. Hitler was a murderer and Wright was a writer. They did things differently in how they came about presenting their points of hatred and anger but none-the-less, both used violence to push their initial ideas around. Another book that is similar to this is J.D. Salinger's, “The Catcher In The Rye.” This is so because not only did Wright use physical attacks as his method, he also used verbal attacks in which Richard twists words and fights back to no end. Holden similarly uses his mind to manipulate people, and then do something good later on to confuse you on his methods. Both use language to attack people who are not ready for such responses.
This book is particularly preoccupied with the relationship between the world and how violence influences it. These are very bad issues in our society now. We used to live in a world where we would talk things out with one another. But now, people solve their problems with a gun or a knife in their own terms. When people resort to home grown justice, they may take it a step too far and do something that will lead to a domino effect of destruction. (Killing someone then that persons brother kills you and your family takes revenge and so on.) In a cycle of violence there will be no other way of solving problems. This book shows that kids learn violence young and hold on to it forever.
To show that these issues are important in “Black Boy” let’s take a look closely first at the entirety of the book. What's this book trying to do? The book is trying to show that if we have violence thrown into our lives at a young age we hold on to it. If we are not taught otherwise then our future will be stricken with hatred and us stuck in the bitter cycle of violence.
So why does Richard Wright use so much violence to make a social commentary statement?
In this scene Richard is burning pieces of a broom in his living room. One falls to the floor and the whole house is engulfed in flames. Richard tries to hide under the house (That is on fire above him). He is found and he knows immediately that he will be beaten. This happens on page 17.
“‘You almost scared us to death’, my mother muttered as she stripped the leaves from a tree limb to prepare it for my back. I was lashed so hard and long that I lost consciousness. I was beaten out of my senses, determined to run away, tussling with my mother and father who were trying to keep me still. I was lost in a fog of fear. A doctor was called--I was afterwards told--and he ordered that I be kept abed, that I be kept quiet, that my very life depended upon it. My body seemed on fire and I could not sleep. Packs of ice were put on my forehead to keep down the fever. Whenever I tried to sleep I would see huge, wobbly, white bags, like the full udders of cows, suspended from the ceiling above me. Later, as I grew worse, I could see the bags in the daytime with my eyes open and I was gripped by the fear that they were going to fall and drench me with some horrible liquid. Day and night I begged my mother and father to take the bags away, pointing to them, shaking with terror because no one saw them but me. Exhaustion would make me drift toward sleep and then I would scream until I was wide awake again. I was afraid to sleep. Time finally bore me away from the dangerous bags and I got well. But for a long time I was chastened whenever I remembered that my mother had come close to killing me.”
The main point of this chunk of text is that Richard is beaten so mercilessly that he passes out. He is hurt so badly that he has night terrors and he was bed ridden for weeks. He had a high fever and had severe exhaustion. This scene in the book shows how quickly people resort to violence. The preceding paragraph consisted of Richard being forcefully dragged out from under the burning house. There was no obligatory “I’m so happy you’re okay etc...” it went straight to hurting Richard for a mistake he made as a very young child.
Next, take a look at what happens on page 368 in “American Hunger” where Cooke and Brand, two co-workers of Richard’s says things neither of them agrees with. Cooke said that a newspaper prints lies and Brand started to verbally attack him. Cooke proceeds to pull out a knife.
"(Cooke) Pulled out a knife from his pocket; his thumb pressed a button and a gleaming steel blade leaped out. Brand stepped back quickly and seized an ice pick that was stuck in a wooden board above the sink...Brand lunged with the ice pick. Cooke dodged out of range. They circled each other like fighters in a prize ring. The cancerous and tubercular rats and mice leaped about their cages. The guinea pigs whistled in fright. The diabetic dogs bard their teeth and barked soundlessly in our direction. The Aschheim-Zondek rabbits flopped their ears and tried to hide in the corners of their pens. Cooke now crouched and sprang forward with the knife. Bill and I jumped to our fee, speechless with surprise. Brand retreated. The eyes of both men were hard and unblinking; they were breathing deeply...Slashing at each other, Brand and Cooke surged up and down the aisles of steel tiers. Suddenly Brand uttered a bellow and charged into Cooke and swept him violently backward. Cooke grasped Brand's hand to keep the ice pick from sinking into his chest. Brand broke free and charged Cooke again, sweeping him into an animal-filled steel tier..."
This is important. It's worth re-reading this and thinking about the exact language: for instance, instead of Brand trying to talk out the problem he had with Cooke, he instantly accepted the violent attack and wanted to fight back. When people resort to violence as their primal instinct, then we see they have been brought up wrong or by themselves on the mean streets of Chicago. The book talks about Cooke and Brand having issues before but they never got violent with it. Both men had the ability to fight at any time they wanted but they refrained. Wright wanted to have them fight over something so irrelevant as a tabloid paper printing lies that set the twosome over the edge. Both men fought for their lives, they had too.
Let’s take a look at both of these scenes, and why they have to say about my question: So why does Richard Wright use so much violence to make a social commentary statement? These scenes have a large thing in common. The characters involved lacked a broad knowledge of knowing when it was a better idea to talk than to hit. In hindsight, Richard should not have been setting things on fire at all and Cooke and brand should have moved to different sections. Both of those options for each scene would have solved the problem and nothing would happen. But the book ran its course and the attacks to ones person continued and people almost died. Cooke from an ice pick to the heart and Richard from a severe beating. They are different in the way of why they were fighting. Young Richard set his family’s house on fire endangering the lives of everyone, so his crime, per se, was more intense. On the other hand, Cooke and Brand were just two men who were always fighting. One person would really set the other over the edge by just being who they are. If one was feeling mean one day, he could just press the others buttons until a fight would start. These scenes connect to my question of a fight on social commentary. Wright makes a hasty choice to give each character short fuses that will make the other explode at any times. Wright is trying to show how fast a situation can turn horrid and that is an idea that our society has. Instead of sitting and talking, we fight and do things we shouldn't have done in the first place.
There is a sense of consistency that arises from these first two little vignettes. Both of these sections have a slander on how quick society is to fight, When I first read these I thought Richard Wright was just violent and a deviant that liked to make trouble. As I read more and more into the story however, I see that Richard Wright wanted us to stop and think about fighting and jumping to the last resort before considering the other points, like talking it out. As I read this I saw that If someone was reading the book, people may think Richard is a violent person. As I will go on, I will elaborate on this further. Once the book was completed though, I saw that everything Wright wrote, he did for a reason. That reason was to make us, as readers, think about what other alternatives we have when it comes to a situation we don’t know how to handle.
The sense of primal instance to fight that is suggested already by these two scenes where Richards’s mother beats him without seeing if he was okay after a house fire, and where Richard’s co-workers attacked each other over something that was bigger than it should have been. We see this theme again on page 30, after having money stolen from him twice, his mother orders him to fight. She says “If those boys bother you, than fight.” She later goes on to tell him not to come home unless he buys groceries even though he is scared out of his mind and that if he comes home without the food, she will whip him. On page 31 there is a detailed battle between Richard and the thugs who stole his money. He uses a stick to hit the gang members until the fled in a dire panic. Though he was young, his mother drove the idea to fight into his five year old subconscious. She threatened to beat him if he did not fight. This ultimatum drove him to violence and he lost part of himself in the process.
Richards’s first real encounter with inflicting pain on someone else shows that he is starting to lose his young innocence and becoming a person of the streets. In this case were his mother instructs him to fight, is his first step into a downward spiral of hurt. It's as if his mother was the catalyst for the cycle of violence that Richard is engulfed with. This is the first instance in which his mother throws the idea of “solve problems with your fists” and will threaten anyone who opposes him, even his own family. He says:
“For a moment she hesitates, then struck me with the switch and I dodged and stumbled into a corner. She was upon me, lashing me across the face. I leaped, screaming, and ran past her and jerked open the kitchen drawer; It spilled to the floor with a thunderous sound. I grabbed up a knife and held it ready for her”
Also take a look at page 140, his Aunt Addie is trying to beat him for a lie she said Richard told:
‘She stood debating. Then she made up her mind and came at me. I lunged at her with the knife and she grasped my hand and tried to twist the knife loose. I threw my right leg about her legs and gave her a shove, tripping her, we crashed to the floor. She was stronger that I and I felt my strength ebbing; she was still fighting for my knife and I saw a look on her face that made me feel she was going to use it on me if she got possession of it. I bit her hand and we rolled, kicking, scratching, hitting, fighting as though we were strangers, deadly enemies, fighting for out lives.”
Richards’s aunt Addie was teaching his school class and accused Richard of doing something he did not do. She tried to beat him, but Richards fight or flight motion came into play and he rebelled the lashing. He was whipped in school but then got home to his aunt ready to inflict more pain. Because he was innocent, he did not want to be beaten for no reason. He and his aunt fought because that is all they knew. They knew that if they fought, they will survive. Addie later took her defeat hard and did not talk to him or call on him for class. Because they knew to fight and not talk, a family was broken.
There are other important themes in this book as well. In one way or another they all have to do with family ties. Yes, this is a book about how a tight knit family is strong and they are positive influences on each other, but it is very much, very consciously, a book about how your family gets to your inner being and morphs it into something you never thought possible. So in these early scenes it's all about family influence. But it's actually not even quite so easy or so simple as these early scenes that I've just discussed might make out.
Our families are the ones who put ideas into our heads and make us do things that either we don’t want to do, or make us do things that should do. They also drive us into a state of change, good or bad, that we sometimes can’t change.
So think about the scene on page 159 where Richard is enrolled in a new school, he is immediately bullied. He is sour from his aunt and grandmother ignoring him from his renouncement of religion so he has little patience for anything. When these bullies confront him, Richard fights them off. Richard, before the renouncement of his religion was a good child. He worked hard in school and tried his best to stay out of trouble. But once he said religion did not appeal to him at the age of twelve, his aunt and grandmother said no more and made him to everything on his own. He had to wash his own clothes and buy his own textbooks. He is twelve and can hardly get work. But when he gets it, his grandmother says he cannot work, because the job is on a Saturday. Saturday is the “Lord’s day” so he was unable to get permission. Richard is bound to his family’s religion and is influenced by it. He changes from who he was to a more violent person because of the abuse he has endured by the hands of his family and they made him do things that he did not see fit. They restrict him trying to do the right thing and soon he will be an empty shell that is bound to his families every whim. Richard is trying to fight for his personal identity in his family but every time he tries he is knocked down.
This theme comes back in the scene on page 171 where Richards’s grandmother tries to smack him for something that he had said or done. Richard, bent on not being hurt, dodges away from the smack and his grandmother loses balance and falls down a flight of stairs. Do you remember this scene? She falls so hard that she is knocked out and has to be carried off to bed. His aunt Addie rushes out and calls Richard an evil child that intended on hurting his grandmother. Addie was attacking Richard with words and once she attempted to get physical, Richard pulls out a carving knife and threatens to kill her if she lays a hand on him. He later describes that he sleeps with the knife under his pillow just in case of an attack at night from his aunt.
There is this sense in which because his family deemed him an outcast, no one would listen to him and he would automatically be considered a heathen. Everything bad that happens is because of him and no one will hear otherwise. He writes in the book that his grandmother missed hitting him and fell under her own momentum but no one else in his family saw it that way.
There is another way to answer my question: why does his family keep hurting him even when he is an adult and is the main provider for his family? No matter what he will ever do, he will still be that young demon child that hurt his grandmother and pulls knives on people that oppose him. He will always be his mother’s son and cannot escape his family’s lifestyle. Take a look at page 398, where we get an account of Richards’s mother finding a Communist magazine that belongs to him and it's like she opened his closet filled with skeletons... Here’s a part of this:
“‘What is this?’ she asked, extending the magazine to me, pointing to the cover. ‘What’s wrong with that man?’
With my mother standing at my side, lending me her eyes, I stared at a cartoon drawn by a Communist artist; it was the figure of a worked clad in ragged overalls and holding aloft a red banner. The man’s eyes bulged; his mouth gapes as wide as his face; his teeth showed; the muscles of his neck were like ropes. Following the man was a horde of nondescript men, women, and children, waving clubs, stones, and pitchforks.
‘What are those people going to do?’ my mother asked...’Why do they act like this?’...What do Communist think people are?’... ‘This picture is enough to drive a body crazy’ she said, dropping the magazine, turning to leave, then pausing at the door. ‘You’re not getting mixed up with those people?’
What we see here is Richards’s mother being insensitive. Richard is captivated by Negro Communist thoughts and actions. He goes to rallies and meetings. His mother comes in, after suffering two strokes and living in his home, and attacks his last beliefs. Though he provides and does everything he possibly can for his family, the people who are supposed to support him attack him and do not let him have anything that they find morally wrong. They believe that the whole family should have and accept the same ideas or else they are not relatives they want to be affiliated with.
Richard was hurt. By his friends, his church group, and most of all his family. His father left them when he was young, his other family members always treated him like a lesser and never gave him a benefit of the doubt. His aunt, the school teacher was always hard on him. His uncle and grandfather never took Richard’s feeling into account. When you are burned by your family, you know that there is no support left out there for you. You must go out alone into the world and find it on your own. His friends were all gang members. They were a little neighborhood gang that fought white kids because they didn’t know what, but they hated the whites. Hate was taught to them at a young age and the parents did nothing for throwing a glass bottle into the face of a white child and then Richard gets hurt his mother, the one who gave him the anger beats him. Responding hate and violence with more anger and violence will only make the cycle stronger and harder to get out of.
We can learn from this book that we are surrounded by hurting and abuse. There are some things in the world that we cannot erase, and that is one of them. Thought we cannot omit it from the global society, we can learn that putting someone through that pain will only make them do it to their kin and we they will be in a vicious cycle that no one can get out of.
The point in sum, what Wright wants you to take away from this is even though violence seems like the quickest and easiest way to punish someone; it is not the best and will only bring on more pain for the abuser and the one being hurt.