Literacy and Words as a Weapon in Richard Wright’s Black Boy
“Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words,” Richard Wright, upon first-person narrator Richard’s discovery of the literary criticism of H. L. Mencken, writes in Black Boy. “He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club” (250). Although Richard immediately goes on to reject the notion of appropriating Mencken’s technique, the motif of literacy and words as “weapons,” in both offensive and defensive functions, is nonetheless a recurring one throughout Black Boy.
Fighting with Words
One of the earliest episodes recalled by Wright’s first-person narrator Richard in Black Boy involves his successful application of “words as a weapon” against his father. After taking his father’s annoyed outburst about killing a cat literally, well knowing that he was not meant to, Richard feels ecstatic. “I had had my first triumph over my father,” he reveals,
I had made him believe that I had taken his words literally. He could not punish me now without risking his authority. I was happy because I had at last found a way to throw my criticism of him into his face. I had made him feel that, if he whipped me for killing the kitten, I would never give serious weight to his words again. I had made him know that I felt he was cruel and I had done it without his punishing me. (Wright, Black Boy 10)
Although his father’s inability to respond to his actions marks Richard’s first recorded instance of “fighting with words” as a success, however, the feeling does not prevail for long; his mother, “being more imaginative,” bludgeons the boy’s conscience and brings alive in him the terror of fully understanding his deed (10-12). His immediate, spectacular rhetorical and intellectual victory over his father, Richard realizes, comes at a horrible price—a pattern which persists.
Richard’s second notable stab at “fighting with words” follows when he tells his devout Seventh-Day-Adventist grandmother to kiss him “back there” while she is rubbing him dry with a towel (39). Not long before this verbal assault, Ella, a school teacher living at his grandmother’s house, introduces Richard to the world of books and stories, but once his grandmother learns of this, she rudely interrupts them and forbids Ella to tell Richard any more stories, which may have motivated the attack (36-38).
Once again, the result is immediate and spectacular, as the sum total of grandmother’s religious hypocrisy—“Granny bore the standard for God, but she was always fighting,“ Richard acknowledges later on, pointing out his constant struggle to “keep from being crushed” by his quarreling, violently religious family (135)—is instantly exposed and her intellectual helplessness at once brought down upon Richard’s head in the shape of a furious, violent rage. As before, Richard’s immediate success is followed by devastating consequences. Not only is he repeatedly beaten, but Ella, whose books still secretly provide Richard with precious glimpses at a more fulfilling life, is suspected of being responsible for Richard’s crude expression, and is forced to leave as a consequence of the incident (39-44).
A final verbal major confrontation in the narrative comes when Richard’s Uncle Tom, having recently moved in with Granny along with his family, sets out to beat Richard after taking offense at a casual remark made by the boy. Resolving not to be beaten by a man he barely knows over an inferred wrong, Richard stands his ground, shielding himself with two razors (157-160). While the razors keep Uncle Tom at bay, the conflict discharges itself in a ferocious, rapid-fire exchange of verbal blows evoking the image of a duel between mortal enemies:
‘You fool!’ [Uncle Tom] bellowed suddenly.
‘I’ll make you bloody if you hit me!’ I warned him.
His chest heaved and his body seemed to droop.
‘Somebody will yet break your spirit,’ he said.
‘It won’t be you!’
‘You’ll get yours someday!’
‘You won’t be the one to give it to me!’
‘And you’ve just been baptized,’ he said heavily.
‘To hell with that,’ I said. (160)
Uncle Tom stands defeated, unable to touch Richard physically without being cut, and incapable of matching his spirit or verbal prowess. But Richard’s victory, as his previous ones, proves to be pyrrhic. After condescending to Uncle Tom for “weav[ing] the bottoms of chairs for people to sit in,” Richard’s defiant attitude is betrayed first by the bleak necessity of having to “face the whims of the white folk” immediately after the incident (160-161), and soon by the realization that his status among his people has become ever more isolated and hopeless as a result of his enmity with Uncle Tom (174-175).
In comparing the three episodes cited here, it should be stressed that the motivation for Richard’s verbal attacks is shifting. Whereas his assaults on his father and his grandmother appear to be spurred by puerile feelings of resentment and revenge, showing Richard in the offensive, his confrontation with Uncle Tom is much less voluntary. Rather, it has the markings of a desperate act of self-defense against physical violence, as well as a mental and emotional “conquest,” as Richard himself says (160), of the mode of life expected from blacks—and also largely by blacks, for themselves—in the South.
Techniques of Appeal
While verbally using “words as a weapon” in the manner described in chapter one, Richard increasingly develops a keen awareness of the rhetorical devices utilized by others in his immediate surroundings. His annoyed reaction to his mother’s helpless teasing about “kungries,” when there is no food to be had (13), yet seems to be a fairly instinctive and natural response, but subsequent episodes reveal a more discerning consciousness of what is being said, such as Richard’s observation that Aunt Addie is “finding her weapon at last” (133), recognizing that she is searching for reasons to scold him after Granny has fallen victim to one of her own violent outbursts. At one point, Richard vividly recalls his time with Brother Mance, the black insurance agent from his neighborhood.
On Sundays Brother Mance would go to the nearest country church and give his sales talk, preaching it in the form of a sermon, clapping his hands as he did so, spitting on the floor to mark off his paragraphs, and stomping his feet in the spit to punctuate his sentences, all of which captivated the black share-croppers. After the performance the wall-eyed yokels would flock to Brother Mance, and I would fill out applications until my fingers ached. (136)
It is this experience, clearly, which Richard recalls as he attends a service at the black Protestant church (151-155). The preacher’s attempts to “seduce” the young boys into joining his church strongly echo Brother Mance’s own “sermons,” which, after all, were held in a church as well. “All the techniques of his appeal were familiar to me,” Richard says, “and I sat there feeling foolish, wanting to leap through the window and go home and forget about it. But I sat still, filled more with disgust than sin.” And feeling not unlike the “wall-eyed yokels” he had encountered before, perhaps. Although he sees through the “ruses,” Richard stays, grimly analyzing the preacher’s rhetorics.
The business of saving souls had no ethics; every human relationship was shamelessly exploited. In essence, the tribe was asking us whether we shared its feelings; if we refused to join the church, it was equivalent to saying no, to placing ourselves in the position of moral monsters. […] If I refused, it meant that I did not love my mother, and no man in that tight little black community had ever been crazy enough to let himself be placed in such a position. (154-155)
Having taken part in both of these events, one worldly and one religious and yet both so very similar, Richard’s assessment of his clash with the principal over his school speech, finally, puts his observations in context: “He was tempting me, baiting me; this was the technique that snared black young minds into supporting the Southern way of life” (175-177). The techniques of Brother Mance, who wants to seduce his clients into signing up for an insurance, are the techniques of the preacher, who intends to seduce impressionable young blacks into joining his community, are the techniques of the principal. Each in their own way, Richard knows, Brother Mance and the preacher and the principal are supporting the system of racial oppression in the South, by ensnaring or bullying fellow blacks into conforming with what is expected of them.
Richard’s own role over the course of these events changes. Reluctantly accepting and participating in Brother Mance and the preacher’s schemes out of necessity and financial and social pressure, he vehemently and staunchly opposes the principal’s attempts to bully him. Along with his awareness of oppressive rhetorical techniques, so grows Richard’s resolve not to be swayed by them.
The Pathway to Freedom
In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a key moment for Douglass is his discovery of the significance of the concept of literacy through his mistress, Sophia Auld, who teaches him how to read and spell.
It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. (Douglass 39)
Obviously, Douglass considers the deprivation of literacy a cornerstone of the white society’s efforts to oppress blacks. Instead of at great length dealing with, and suppressing, an educated and self-aware class of slaves, Dougless’s owner recognizes, it is much simpler and much more efficient to ensure that the slaves will never reach this inconvenient state of enlightenment to begin with.
‘[I]f you teach that nigger […] how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.’ (39)
Hence, the “pathway from slavery to freedom” Douglass proposes is clear: It lies with literacy.
In Black Boy, Richard’s initial contact with the world of stories and books yields a similar response. Here said contact comes in the shape of Ella, the young black school teacher living at his grandmother’s house. Described as having such a “remote and dreamy and silent” manner upon her that Richard “was as much afraid of her” as he “was attracted to her” (Wright, Black Boy 36), Ella’s almost ethereal appearance seems very reminiscent of Sophia Auld’s in Douglass’s Narrative, who is said to have “a white face beaming with the most kindly of emotions”—an “angelic face,” even (Douglass 36/38).
As Sophia Auld introduces Frederick Douglass to literacy, thus opening his eyes to a potential means of escape from his plight, Ella begins to tell Richard a story which, though abruptly aborted by his grandmother, leaves him eager for more of the same.
I hungered for the sharp, frightening, breathtaking, almost painful excitement that the story had given me, and I vowed that as soon as I was old enough I would buy all the novels there were and read them to feed that thirst for violence that was in me, for intrigue, for plotting, for secrecy, for bloody murders. […] They could not have known that Ella’s whispered story of deception and murder had been the first experience in my life that had elicited from me a total emotional response. No words or punishment could have possibly made me doubt. I had tasted what to me was life, and I would have more of it, somehow, someway. (Wright, Black Boy 38)
Although it is clear that Douglass—at least as far as his Narrative is concerned—right away comes to view literacy as a much more literal means of escape than Richard, who at first only sees the stories rather than the abstract concept of literacy, regarding them as escapism rather than a means to “escape” from his situation in a literal sense, the parallels are nonetheless striking: Richard, just like Douglass before him, immediately and instinctively seizes upon the new world of letters and words, recognizing its potential.
Another crucial moment in Black Boy comes with the death of his grandfather, whose illiteracy prevents him not only from obtaining a pension, but, ultimately, from establishing his very identity. “Like ‘K’ of Kafka’s novel, The Castle,” Richard says of his grandfather, “he tried desperately to pursuade the authorities of his true identity right up to the day of his death, and failed” (139). Richard knows the meaning of this failure, having repeatedly experienced his own failure to say or spell his own name at school, resulting in the ridicule of his classmates and in intense feelings of helplessness and frustration (23/73-74).
Towards the end of Black Boy, Richard’s appreciation of being able to read enters its next stage, as he discovers the political writings of H. L. Mencken.
I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. […] I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it. […] I concluded the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life. (250-251)
And once again, the episode echoes closely the feelings described in Douglass’ Narrative, upon the author’s discovery of the abolitionist Liberator.
The paper became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bonds—its scathing denunciations of slaveholders—its faithful exposures of slavery—and its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution—sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before! (Douglass 100)
Having read Mencken’s A Book of Prefaces, Richard sees his “impulse to dream” revived (Wright, Black Boy 251). As he turns to other works of literary criticism and fiction, he begins to understand “what being a Negro meant” (252).
Richard now stops regarding his reading as mere escapism and, like Douglass before him, begins to treat it as the instrument of his escape: no longer a way of shutting himself off from the world around him and of triggering emotional responses, reading has become a tool he uses to improve his grasp on the English language and to prepare himself for fulfilling his dream to become a writer in the north (253). For Richard, as for Frederick Douglass, literacy and words now signify the instruments of his salvation, a “pathway from slavery to freedom.”
A Rigged System
Although a hundred years have passed between the initial publications of the Narrative and Black Boy, there are yet marked similarities between Douglass’ plight and Richard’s. In Wright’s book, the narrator’s experiences suggest that the station of blacks in the South with regard to literacy has improved, at least in theory. While blacks are allowed to go to school and obtain a degree of literacy in Black Boy, however, this seems to be a cosmetic change rather than a genuine one; in practice, not much has changed at all.
As Richard’s adolescence progresses and brings about an increasing necessity to interact with whites, he begins to focus his attention on black-white relations in the South. His earliest observation on the subject matter recounted in the narrative is that whites “were merely people like other people, yet somehow strangely different because [he] had never come in close touch with any of them” (Wright, Black Boy 21). The story of a black boy beaten by a white man (22) soon makes him realize that something is not quite right between blacks and whites, and his first encounter with a white woman, when applying for a job, provides him with a hint of the full extent of the situation. Asked point blank whether he steals by his would-be employer, Richard bursts into a laugh, replying that he would never tell anybody if he did steal (145). As he quickly learns, his reaction betrays a level of consciousness, intelligence and self-assertion on his part which whites do not appreciate in blacks.
The incident is not an isolated case, and Richard, unable and unwilling to adjust to the whites’ expectations after having drawn “a line over which they must not step” (145-146), keeps breaking the unwritten laws of the land—by remarking that “there’s nothing much to say or smile about” to a white employer openly wondering to him about the lack of the dominant Negro stereotypes (184); by “trying to […] get smart” and learn a trade (189); by daring to suggest that he is decent enough a person to admit a mistake, let alone that he understands the consequences or is able to grasp his white employer’s anger (197); and by generally giving away his self-consciousness and existence as an individual through “[his] attitude, [his] speech, the look in [his] eyes” (184).
Whereas his verbal transgressions against, and quarrels with, his own relatives display more than a small degree of aggression on his part, Richard’s dealings with whites do not require aggression to cause offense. The mere suggestion that he may be a thinking, self-aware human being appears sufficient to incite the ire of his white employers and co-workers. His most significant observation, consequently, is that “many of the most important things were never openly said; they were understated and left to seep through to one” (171). Richard may be literate, but admitting to and exercising that literacy may very well spell his doom, leaving him, in practice, as intellectually enslaved as Douglass is in his Narrative.
Subsequently, although his every fiber seems to struggle against it, Richard realizes that he “must, must, MUST” learn to adapt a mode of behavior which allows him to interact with whites until such a time when he has put aside enough money to leave the South behind (196). His skill at doing so increases once he is in Memphis, when the notion of leaving the South for good is within his reach. With “false heartiness” and what he calls “that nigger-being-a-good-natured-boy-in-the-presence-of-a-white-man pattern” (236), Richard succeeds at disguising his true feelings towards whites, closely observing and weighing their every move when they are in his presence, and learning to choose his words as carefully as steps on a minefield while “skirting the vast racial chasm” (236).
Hence, in reality, the perpetual state of intellectual oppression illustrated by Douglass persists in Richard’s life. Blacks in the South, Richard eventually comes to realize, have “never been allowed to catch the true spirit of Western civilization” (35), his aspirations to become a writer being “a dream which the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle” (170). While he knows that literacy can be his path to a better life, he learns that disguising his literacy while having to remain in the South is of the essence for his survival.
Writing as a Weapon
After elaborating on Richard’s early attempts at orally “fighting with words,” his observations on the rhetorical techniques used by others, his growing awareness of the blacks’ station in the South and his discovery of the significance of literacy and reading, it’s time to focus on the next logical step in young Richard’s—and, ultimately, Wright’s—relationship with words: his writing.
Right from Richard’s first related application of written words in Black Boy—his cheerful scrawling of four-letter words on the windows of his neighborhood with a piece of soap—, two recurring major themes of his writing are present. The first consists of the joy and eagerness he experiences at the thought of “display[ing] all [he] had learned.” The second is the great effect—in this case, the commotion and outright offense—that even a small written word can cause if applied accordingly, which leads Richard to resolve to never again “write words like that”—instead, he will keep them to himself (23-24).
Although Richard learns his lesson where four-letter words are concerned, however, the consequences of this initial foray into “writing”—or, perhaps more accurately, exercising his physical and intellectual ability to write—do not deter him from trying his hand again, albeit with rather different ambitions. Upon completing his first fictional story, Richard’s excitement at having written something that is his, “no matter how bad it was,” is reminiscent of his earlier experiment with four-letter words. The results of the exercise, this time, are just as resounding, in a way, as those of Richard’s earlier attempt with soap, but much more pleasant for him. Commotion and offense are now replaced with “astonishment and bewilderment” in his “audience,” a reaction which, in an environment that “contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing,” is enormously gratifying to him, making him proud of his accomplishment (118-120).
While Richard clearly enjoys the lack of comprehension at first, being satisfied by the distance it creates between himself and the miserable environment he lives in, the utter and incessant disbelief that a Negro boy such as he could want to express himself through writing, let alone desire to become a writer, eventually becomes a permanent source of distress for him.
‘Where did you get the idea?’ (119)
‘Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?’ (147)
‘Who told you to do that?’ (168)
“Had I been conscious of the full extent to which I was pushing against the current of my environment,” Richard reflects, “I would have been frightened altogether out of my attempts at writing,” commenting on his family and his schoolmates’ reactions to his first published work, who grow suspicious of him, see the devil’s handywork in his writing or worry that he may be regarded as weak-minded because of it, which, after all, would obstruct his chances at getting a job. “In me was shaping a yearning for a kind of consciousness, a mode of being that the way of life about me had said could not be, must not be, and upon which the penalty of death had been placed,” he summarizes his situation at the age of fifteen (168-170).
Bearing this in mind, the significance of Richard’s school speech becomes apparent. More than a simple acknowledgement of his graduation from school or even a spontaneous act of rebellion, the speech for Richard stands at the end of a long struggle as an ultimate expression of his literacy and self-assurance in the face of adverse conditions. One last time, his relatives descend upon him, in a final attempt to have it their way.
‘You’re trying to go too fast,’ my mother said.
‘You’re nothing but a child,’ Uncle Tom pronounced.
‘He’s beside himself,’ Granny said. (179)
“I served notice that I was making my own decisions from then on,” Richard notes, nonchalantly (179). Giving his own speech (as opposed to the principal’s) and doing so in a suit (as opposed to his ragged short pants, as his family would have had it), symbolizes the first step in Richard’s emancipation from both the weight of the whites’ unspoken rules and expectations and from the oppression through his own family, which is firmly entrenched in those rules. “The principal’s speech was simpler and clearer than mine,” he acknowledges, “but it did not say anything; mine was cloudy, but it said what I wanted to say” (178).
Of course, the notion of saying what he wants to say also harkens back to his grandfather’s failure to establish his identity. Instead of failing like his grandfather did, and like Richard himself did, previously, when he repeatedly proved unable to speak or write on the blackboard at school, now, for the first time, he rises above the difficulties in his path, asserts himself and literally says what he wants to say. Which, after all, is infinitely more than his grandfather ever managed.
Black Boy as a Weapon
On a meta-level, finally, Black Boy itself can be read as a result of all of Richard’s experiences and observations, as described in the book. In “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” an essay on his novel Native Son written five years prior to the publication of Black Boy, Wright points out that he “lived the first seventeen years of [his] life in the South without so much as hearing of or seeing one act of rebellion from any Negro, save the Bigger Thomases” (Wright, “Bigger” 439). On the motives of Native Son’s violent Bigger Thomas character, Wright explains:
But why did Bigger revolt? No explanation based upon a hard and fast rule of conduct can be given. But there were always two factors psychologically dominant in his personality. First, through some quirk of circumstance, he had become estranged from the religion and the folk culture of his race. Second, he was trying to react to and answer the call of the dominant civilization whose glitter came to him through the newspapers, magazines, radios, movies, and the mere imposing sight and sound of daily American life. In many respects his emergence as a distinct type was inevitable. (439)
The two factors Wright brings up are, of course, the same ones which define Richard in Black Boy. Like Bigger, Richard “becomes estranged from religion and from the folk culture of his race.” Like Bigger, Richard is “trying to react to and answer the call of the dominant civilization”—the Western civilization, whose spirit, as Richard says, his race has never been allowed to catch in the South (Wright, Black Boy 35) and which he encounters only in books, magazines and papers.
“But Richard Wright did not become Bigger Thomas;” Dan McCall reminds us, “he created him” (McCall 106). If Bigger’s “emergence as a distinct type” was inevitable, then, what about Richard himself? The answer lies in the nature of each character’s “revolt.” In Bigger’s case, the revolt manifests itself in physical violence. Richard’s revolt, on the other hand, is expressed in words—verbal fights with his relatives, stories “to feed that thirst for violence” (Wright, Black Boy 38), the literature which convinces him that he “had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life” (251) and his own attempts at writing, which, finally, result in his realization that he “now knew what being a Negro meant” (252).
Ultimately, the major distinction between Bigger’s revolt and Richard’s revolt lies not in its motivation, but in its expression. By observing his environment—which, after all, includes the ‘Biggers,’ as he calls them—Wright finds tools for his revolt which can be just as violent and shocking as Bigger’s, but in an entirely different and much more efficient manner. In the light of the account of his life given in Black Boy, the very act of telling his story in an articulate, astute, and commercially successful book clearly constitutes an infinitely larger affront and offense to white Southerners than any act of physical black violence ever could. As Richard says,
I, who stole nothing, who wanted to look them straight in the face, who wanted to talk and act like a man, inspired fear in them. The Southern whites would rather have had Negroes who stole work for them than Negroes who knew, however dimly, the worth of their own humanity. Hence, whites placed a premium upon black deceit; they encouraged irresponsibility; and their rewards were bestowed upon us blacks in the degree that we could make them feel safe and superior. (202)
The publication of Black Boy, consequently, has to represent the ultimate manifestation of the fear Richard speaks of; not only is it very obviously the work of an intelligent and educated black writer from the South who has largely managed to avoid crime, but it is written by a black man who is well aware of the state of race relations in the South, and more than able and willing to, tell his story—and, in the end, capable of selling it, too.
Richard’s reaction to the urban legend of the black woman who avenged her murdered husband, in retrospect, can almost be read as a mission statement for Black Boy:
I did not know if the story was factually true or not, but it was emotionally true because I had already grown to feel that there existed men against whom I was powerless, men who could violate my life at will. I resolved that I would emulate the black woman if I were ever faced with a white mob; I would conceal a weapon, pretend that I had been crushed by the wrong done to one of my loved ones; then, just when they thought I had accepted their cruelty as the law of my life, I would let go with my gun and kill as many of them as possible before they killed me. The story of the woman’s deception gave form and meaning to confused defensive feelings that had long been sleeping in me. (71-72)
In Black Boy, the story of his life as told by himself, due to a degree of awareness and capability which he “concealed” from the white society until the very day when he left the South for good, “pos[ing] as an innocent boy” (256), it seems Richard Wright has found that weapon. The wrong he pretended to have been crushed by had been done not just to one of his loved ones, but to himself, to his entire family, to every black individual in the South. Instead of shooting his oppressors with a gun, he chooses to fight them with words, exposing his life and and confronting them with it—thereby, as McCall puts it, triumphing over their world and using words as “his way of making the world recognize his existence” (McCall 133), but, unlike his creation Bigger Thomas, without being destroyed in the process.
“Could words be weapons?,” Richard wonders. “Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon? No. It frightened me” (Wright, Black Boy 250). Given the ample evidence to the contrary, perhaps Wright expects his audience to take this denial with a grain of salt—just like his assertion at the beginning that, no, he had not wanted to set his grandmother’s house aflame at all—he “just wanted to see how the curtains would look when they burned” (3). Regardless of the author’s—or the first-person narrator’s—underlying intentions, however, the results remain the same, and they speak for themselves: His grandmother’s house burned down, and Black Boy, the autobiography of a literate, self-conscious black writer from the South, quickly became a controversially discussed best-seller.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. 1845. Ed. Deborah E. McDowell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
McCall, Dan. The Example of Richard Wright. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy. A Record of Childhood and Youth. 1945. London: Vintage, n. d.
---. “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born.” 1940. Native Son. 1940. Restored ed. 1991. By Wright. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. 431-462.
Written in 2006.