Friday, February 13, 2009

Reading Mr. Wright

Richard Wright had the type of childhood that could only produce a serial killer or a perspicacious author. Fortunately, he became the latter.

Wright’s autobiography, “Black Boy,” details Wright’s childhood, growing up black in Mississippi during the 1920s — before the era of Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney or Michael Schwerner.

Wright plays a trick on the reader. From our first introduction to the author — when he carelessly burns most of his parents’ house and hides because he does not want to be beaten — he leads us to believe that he might be unstable.

He’s a drunkard by the age of six, begging sips from saloon dwellers and repeating their vulgarities. He accidentally embarrasses his grandma at church and threatens his aunt with a knife.

But Wright observes that he is a product of his environment (before talk shows and sidewalk psychiatrists made that phrase a miserable cliché.)

White folk abuse Wright, black people do not understand Wright’s inability to acclimate to the status quo and his family alternately rejects and assaults him.

Wright might be crazy, but, if he is, it’s because the only safe place to hide was in-sanity.

In other words, if Wright’s childhood was an asylum, it is difficult to tell if he is the warden or another patient.

But thank goodness for Wright’s abusive, psychologically scarring childhood. Without it, we wouldn’t have “Native Son” or “Uncle Tom’s Children.” He says it better than I can:

Because I had no power to make things happen outside of me in the objective world, I made things happen within. Because my environment was bare and bleak, I endowed it with unlimited potentialities, redeemed it for the sake of my own hungry and cloudy yearning.

We reap the benefit of Wright’s unlimited potentialities in “Black Boy."

-Jason Lea,

P.S. This concludes my Black History Month miniseries. Next time, I'll have something for all of you Valentine's Day romantics.

P.P.S. Richard Wright was the alias I used in college when I didn’t want a woman to know my real name. Consequently, if you were one of the women — there were not many — who thought they met a man with the same name as a brilliant American author at a bar in Ohio University from 2002 to 2005, I apologize. You were too good for me anyhow.



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