Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Black Boy (copy)

I finished Richard Wright’s Black Boy last week and just shook my head. I kept coming up with one word to describe his life: hunger. He hungered for food, he hungered for love, he hungered for attention, and he hungered for knowledge.

Richard Nathaniel Wright was born September 4, 1908 near Roxie, Mississippi on Rucker’s Plantation. His family, gripped with poverty, was constantly moving from state to state in order to find work. Wright’s mobile lifestyle allowed for three months of school in Memphis, one large gap, then some more school in Arkansas, another gap, and finally graduated ninth grade at the age of 17 in Jackson, MS.

Through this autobiography and his other writings such as Native Son, I am convinced he was a genius. His early education was too sporadic to attribute to his speech and grammar skills. It was his hunger for knowledge that improved his life. One of America’s many self-taught men.

Wright began his self education with a burning desire to know more and the use of a white man’s library card. While working in a Memphis optical shop, he would come in early to read the complimentary Commercial Appeal in the lobby. One day he ran across an editorial denouncing H.L. Mencken with one short sentence, “Mencken is a fool.”

Who was this Mencken and how did he raise the ire of a normally even tempered editor? Wright needed to know, but the Memphis Public Library was for whites only. One of his many errands for the optical company included picking up books for fellow workers at the downtown library. He thought how easy it would be for him to check out books on one of those cards if he could only get the owner’s permission.

Wright talked a nice Irish Catholic—long forgotten his name—into sharing his card, but the plan still had obstacles. He would have to write a convincing note and the smart librarian would have to be duped.

With a humble face, Wright stood at the circulation counter watching the librarian’s reaction. She quizzed him, “What books does Mr. X want to read by Mencken?”

“I don’t know, Ma’am.”

“Are these books for you?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“Well, tell Mr. X to include a list next time.”

Pshew!

Kids have it so easy today in Mississippi with excellent public schools and libraries. Oh, how I wish I could give them Richard Wright’s hunger for knowledge.

Note: Richard is the older child on the left side of the cover. You can read an excellent review of Black Boy at Just a Reading Fool's blog.

10 comments: