This book review was written by Eugene Kernes
Genre = Sociology
This autobiography is an emotional trek. From racism to communism, Richard Wright expresses the issues with clarity and understanding which force the issues into the light of fact rather than emotion, but without reducing the emotional situation Wright is placed in. The story expresses a variety of difficult situations and how Wright tried to negotiate a solution. Due to the family background, Wright had to grow up quickly. Many sacrifices needed to be made such as going hungry to save money to travel to northern states. Developments such as learning to make an income and write are the undercurrent of the story which exemplify how Wright dealt with ethical issues. The book is separated into two parts which illuminate divergent thoughts for Wright and the country: the first part of the book is Wrights’ life in the South, with the second part of the book being his life in the North.
Wright grew up in a neighborhood that lacked diversity in race and religious opinion. Wright had to move to different homes due to different reason and circumstances but mostly due to a lack of family income. Wright’s mother becoming ill caused a him and his brother to be placed in different relatives’ homes. Wright asked to go back to be near his mother who was being taken care by his grandmother and an aunt. The family was part of a community and part of the community meant being part of the church. Wright’s grandmother and aunt were influential figures in this religious community, but Wright himself did not wish to participate in religious life. This created a family conflict in which Wright was maltreated due to a lack of religious participation. The community also made his life difficult and tried to prevent communication with Wright. Even as Wright became valedictorian, his own community would not allow to raise his station in life, they continuously held Wright back.
Due to lack of contact with White people, Wright saw them as “strangely different” but just like other people. Expected behavior between Whites and Blacks was intuitive, never openly explained. Wright did not see the inferiority and so behaved differently than expected. When Wright was trying to earn an income, he had trouble maintaining jobs due to an inability to cope with expected behavior. Maintaining a subservient position was difficult for Wright. Blacks in the South wanted conformity to their views such as inferiority to the Whites. The hostility shown by Whites was deeply ingrained which caused tension at the mention of Whites.
Needing to get out of the South, Wright saved money by reducing the amount spent on food. Making it to the North, Wright notes an extremely different culture. There was no noticeable contempt held by White people against Black people. Although the North did not have any indication of racial tension, Wright naturally assumed that Whites were conspiring against him. Even when faced with those genuinely interested in helping Wright, Wright did not accept them.
Wright was invited to join a writing club, but it was attached to the Communist party. Wright was sympathetic for some “Communist analysis of the world” but could not accept the simplicity and myopia of the visions. By joining the party, he had finally made lasting relations and helped define the local branch of the Communist party. Wright saw no racial hate in the Communist party but had intellectual hate. As Wright points out, the emotional certainty contradicted the knowledge denied to everyone else. Communists expressed radical difference against the conformity of views about capitalism but vilified anyone who disagrees with any message by the communists. When Wright was leaving the party, the Communist party tried to deny him as much freedom as possible. Wright went to the North to be able to speak freely but the Communist party did not tolerate those who questioned its interest, making Wright have the same fears he had in the South.
As Wright is writing about himself, he selected the parts of his life to be displayed which at times make Wright appear as an unreliable narrator. Some parts of the story seem to be missing. They seem missing because Wright explained certain situations with extreme depth and care to his intentions and thoughts, but when presenting a similar situation, he describes them briefly without providing the full context and narrating the situation from somewhere in the middle. Another indicator of some unreliability is the clarity of conversations. Conversations come from a seemingly perfect recollection, even those at a young age. These issues do take away some of the bona fide from story, but even if the issues are real, the eloquence created maintain the generalization.
The story expresses how Wright tried to keep moral righteousness despite circumstance, only stooping to stealing or lying under intense situation. Did not want to steal as it was futile, contrary to others in Wright’s situation who thought it was the only way to get ahead. Certain themes are not as salient but have deep implications such as the difficulty in questioning authority figures and questioning circumstance despite the claims of others. Wright read to help define the situation he was in and wrote as a way of seeing the situation.
Pages to read: 337
1st Edition: 1945
Ratings out of 5: