Interviewer: Good evening readers. Welcome to today’s review. The review is of Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Welcome Ndi Charles. Can you give us a sneak peek into Black Boy.
NC: Thank you. Black boy is a story about growing up. In each chapter, Richard relates painful memories that lead to an understanding of the black southern man who eventually emerges. Black boy’s first page offers a seamless transition into the four year old world of disobedient Richard.
The house was quiet. Behind me my brother—a year younger than I—was playing placidly upon the floor with a toy. A bird wheeled past the window and I greeted it with a glad shout.
You better hush, my brother said.
You shut up, I said.
My mother stepped briskly into the room and closed the door behind her. She came to me and shook her finger in my face.
You stop that yelling, you hear? She whispered. You know granny’s sick and you better keep quiet!
I hung my head and sulked. She left and I ached with boredom.
I told you so, my brother gloated.
You shut up, I told him again. Pg 1
Richard ended up burning the house that night. First he started throwing broom straws into the fireplace. Then Richard held flaming broom straws under the white fluffy curtains. Richard thought of running away and never coming back. Richard ran and hid under the house crying as the commotion increased above.
Richard! My mother was calling frantically.
I saw her legs and the hem of her dress moving swiftly about the backyard. Her wails were full of an agony whose intensity told me that my punishment would be measured by it’s depth. Then I saw her taut face peering under the edge of the house. She had found me! I held my breath and waited to hear her commandeer me to come to her. Her face went away; no she had not seen me. Huddled in the dark nook of the chimney, I tucked my head into my arms and my teeth chattered.
The distress I sensed in her voice was as sharp and painful as the lash of a whip on my flesh.
Richard! The house is on fire oh, find my child!
Yes, the house was afire, but I was determined not to leave my place of safety. Finally I saw another face peering under the edge of the house; it was my fathers. His eyes must have become accustomed to the shadows, for he was now pointing at me.
There he is!
Naw! I screamed.
Come here boy!
The house is on fire!
Leave me alone.
He crawled to me and caught hold of one of my legs. I hugged the edge of the brick chimney with all my strength. My father yanked my leg and I clawed at the chimney harder.
Come outta there, you little fool!
Turn me loose!
I could not withstand the tugging at my leg and my fingers relaxed. It was over. I would be beaten. I did not care anymore. I knew what was coming. He dragged me to the backyard and the instant his hand left me I jumped to my feet and broke into a wide run, trying to elude the people who surrounded me; heading for the street. I was caught before I had gone ten paces.
From that moment on things became tangled for me. Out of the weeping and shouting and the wild talk, I learned that no one had died in the fire. My brother it seemed had finally overcome enough of his panic to warn my mother, but not before more than half the house had been destroyed. Using the mattress as a stretcher, Grandpa and an uncle had lifted Granny from her bed and had rushed her to the safety of a neighbour’s house. My long silence and absence had made everyone think for a while, that I had perished in the blaze.
You almost scared us to death—my mother muttered— as she stripped the leaves from the 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 and later I found myself in bed, screaming, determined to run away, tussling with my mother and father who were trying to keep me still. Pg 4
Interviewer: Wow, this book seems rife with intrigue. What can you tell us about the author? Any unique characteristics?
NC: The author possesses an intriguing technique of enumerating or listing. They serve as an explanation it seems of Richard’s feelings—
There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountain like spotted black and white horses, clopping down a dusty road through clouds of powdered clay.
There was the vague sense of the infinite as I looked upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Missisipi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.
There was the tantalizing melancholy In the trying scent of burning hickory wood.
There was the liquid alarm I saw in the blood red glare of the sun’s afterglow mirrored in the squared panes of whitewashed farm houses.
There was the experience of feeling death without dying that came from watching a chicken leap about blindly after its neck had been snapped by a quick twist of my father’s wrist.
There was the speechless astonishment of seeing a hog stabbed through the heart, dipped into boiling water, scraped, split open, gutted and strung up gaping and bloody.
There was the hint of cosmic cruelty that I felt when I saw the curved timbers of a wooden shack that had been warped in the sun.
There was the drenching hospitality in the pervading smell of sweet magnolias.
There was the pitying chuckle that bubbled in my throat when I watched a fat duck waddle across the backyard.
There was the drugged, sleepy feeling that came from sipping glasses of milk, drinking them slowly so that they would last a long time, and drinking enough for the first time in my life.
There was the bitter amusement of going into town with grandma and watching the baffled stares of white folks who saw an old white woman leading two undeniably Negro boys in and out of stores in Capitol Street.
There was the awe and fear I felt when Grandpa took me to a sawmill to watch the giant whirring steel blades whine and scream as they bit into wet green logs.
There was the puckery taste that almost made me cry when I ate my first half ripe persimmon.
There was the aura of limitless freedom distilled from the rolling sweep of tall green grass swaying and glinting in the wind and sun.
If I pulled a hair from a horse’s tail and sealed it in a jar of my own urine, the hair would turn overnight into a snake.
If my right ear itched, then something was good was being said about me by somebody.
If I touched a hunchback’s hump, then I would never be sick.
If I placed a safety pin on a steel rail road track and let a train run over it, the safety pin would turn into a pair of bright brand new scissors.
If it rained while the sun was shining, then the devil was beating his wife.
If I kissed my elbow, I would turn into a girl.
If I heard a voice and no human being was near, then either God or the devil was trying to talk to me.
Whenever I made urine, I should spit into it for good luck.
If the stars twinkled more than usual on any given night, it meant that the angels in heaven were happy and were flitting across the floors of heaven, the twinkling came from the angels flitting past the holes that admitted air into the holy home of God.
If I was good to my mother, I would grow old and rich.
If I had a cold and tied a worn, dirty sock about my throat before I went to bed, the cold would be gone the next morning.
If I spilt salt, I should toss a pinch over my left shoulder to ward off misfortune.
Interviewer: Please tell us something tangible about Richard’s personality.
NC: Richard is introspective. The enumeration technique exhibited by the author may be due to Richard’s ability to look inwards.
Once in the night, my mother called me to her bed and told me that she could not endure the pain that she wanted to die. I held her hand and begged her to be quiet. That night I ceased to react to my mother; my feelings were frozen. I merely waited upon her, knowing that she was suffering. She remained abed ten years, gradually growing better, but never completely recovering; relapsing periodically into her paralytic state. The family had stripped itself of money to fight my mother’s illness and there was no more forthcoming. Her illness gradually became an accepted thing in the house, something that could not be stopped or helped.
My mother’s suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness, the painful, baffling, hunger ridden days and hours; the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread; the meaningless pain and the endless suffering. Her life set the emotional tone of my life; colored the men and women I was to meet in the future, conditioned my relation to events that had not yet happened, determined my attitude to situations and circumstances I had yet to face. A somberness of spirit that I was never to lose settled over me during the slow years of my mother’s unrelieved suffering, a somberness that was to make me stand apart and look upon excessive joy with suspicion, that was to make me self-conscious, that was to make me keep forever on the move, as though to escape a nameless fate seeking to overtake me.
At the age of twelve, before I had had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.
At the age of twelve I had an attitude towards life that was to endure, that was to make me seek those areas of living that would keep it alive, that was to make me skeptical of everything while seeking everything, tolerant of all yet critical. The spirit I had caught, gave me insight into the sufferings of others, made me gravitate towards those whose feelings were like my own, made me sit for hours while others told me of their lives, made me strangely tender and cruel, violent and peaceful.
It made me want to drive coldly to the heart of any question and lay it open to the core of suffering I knew I would find there. It made me love burrowing into psychology, into realistic and naturalistic fiction and art, into those whirlpool of politics that had the power to claim the whole of men’s souls. It directed my loyalties to the side of men in rebellion; it made me love talk that sought answers to questions that could help nobody, that could only keep alive in me that enthralling sense of wonder and awe in the face of the drama of human feeling which is hidden by the external drama of life. Pg 87
I grew silent and reserved as the nature of the world in which I lived became plain and undeniable; the bleakness of the future affected my will to study. Granny had already thrown out hints that it was time for me to be on my own. But what had I learned so far that would help me to make a living? Nothing. I could be a porter like my father before me, but what else? And the problem of living as a Negro was cold and hard. What was it that made the hate of whites for blacks so steady, seemingly so woven into the texture of things? What kind of life was possible under that hate? How had this hate come to be? Nothing about the problems of Negroes was ever taught in the classrooms at school; and whenever I would raise these questions with the boys, they would either remain silent or turn the subject into a joke. They were vocal about the petty individual wrongs they suffered, but they possessed no desire for a knowledge of the picture as a whole. Then why was I worried about it?
Was I really as bad as my uncles and aunts and Granny repeatedly said? Why was it considered wrong to ask questions? Was I right when I resisted punishment? It was inconceivable to me that one should surrender to what seemed wrong. Ought one to surrender to authority if one believed that that authority was wrong? If the answer was yes, then I knew that I would always be wrong because I could never do it. Then how could one live in a world in which one’s minds and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything? There were no answers. Pg 144
Had I been conscious of the full extent to which I was pushing against the current of my environment, I would have been frightened altogether out of my attempts at writing. But my reactions were limited to the attitude of the people about me, and I did not speculate or generalize.
I dreamed of going north and writing books, novels. The north symbolized to me all that I had not felt and seen; it had no relation whatever to what actually existed. Yet, by imagining a place where everything was possible, I kept hope alive in me. But where had I got this notion of doing something in the future, of going away from home and accomplishing something that would be recognized by others? I had, of course read my Horatio Alger stories, my pulp stories, and I knew my Get – Rich – Quick Wallingford series from cover to cover, though I had sense enough not to hope to get rich; even to my naïve imagination that possibility was too remote. I knew that I lived in a country in which the aspirations of black folk were limited, marked – off. Yet I felt that I had to go somewhere and do something to redeem my being alive.
I was building up in me a dream which the entire educational system of the south had been rigged to stifle. I was feeling the very thing the system of the state of Mississippi had spent millions of dollars to make sure that I would never feel; I was becoming aware of the thing that the Jim Crow laws had been drafted and passed to keep out of my consciousness; I was acting on impulses that Southern senators in the nation’s capital had striven to keep out of negro life; I was beginning to dream the dreams that the state had said were wrong, that the schools had said were taboo.
Had I been articulate about my ultimate aspirations, no doubt someone would have told me what I was bargaining for; but nobody seemed to know and least of all did I. My classmates felt that I was doing something that was vaguely wrong, but they did not know how to express it. As the outside world grew more meaningful, I became more concerned, tense; and my classmates and my teachers would say: Why do you ask so many questions? Or: keep quiet.
I was in my fifteenth year; in terms of schooling I was far behind the average youth of the nation, but I did not know that. 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. Somewhere in the dead of the southern night my life had switched onto the wrong track and, without my knowing it, the locomotive of my heart was rushing down a dangerously steep slope, heading for a collision, heedless of the warning red lights that blinked all about me, the sirens and the bells and the screams that filled the air. Pg 148
The white south said that it knew niggers, and I was what the white south called a nigger. Well the white south had never known me—never known what I thought, what I felt. The white south said that I had a place in life. Well, I had never felt my place, or rather my deepest instincts had always made me reject the place to which the white south had assigned me. It had never occurred to me that I was in anyway an inferior being. And no word that I had ever heard fall from the lips of southern white men had ever made me really doubt the worth of my own humanity. True, I had lied, I had stolen. I had struggled to contain my seething anger. I had fought. And it was perhaps a mere accident that I had never killed. But in what other ways had the south allowed me to be natural, to be real, to be myself, except in rejection, rebellion and aggression?
Not only had the southern whites not known me, but, more importantly still, as I had lived in the south I had not had the chance to learn who I was. The pressure of southern living kept me from being the kind of person that I might have been. I had been what my surroundings had demanded, what my family—conforming to the dictates of the whites above them—had exacted of me, and what the whites had said that I must be. Never being fully able to be myself, I had slowly learned that the south could recognize but a part of a man, could accept but a fragment of his personality, and all the rest – the best and deepest things of heart and mind—were tossed away in blind ignorance and hate. Pg 228
Richard is also willful.
I stared at her becoming aware each minute of the terrible simplicity of her life. That was life for her, simple, direct. She just did not attach to words the same meanings I did. She caught my hands in a vicelike grip. I looked at her and could not believe in her existence.
I love you, she said.
Don’t say that, I said then was sorry that I had said it.
But I do love you, she said again.
Her voice had come so clearly that I could no longer doubt her. For christ’s sake, I said to myself. The girl was astoundingly simple, yet vital in a way that I had ever known. What kind of life had I lived that made the reality of this girl so strange? I sat thinking of Aunt Addie, her stern face, her forbidding nature, her caution, her restraint, her keen struggle to be good and holy.
I’d make a good wife, she said.
I disengaged my hand from hers. I looked at her and wanted either to laugh or to slap her. I was about to hurt her and I did not want to. I rose. Oh, hell. This girl’s crazy. I heard her crying so I bent to her.
Look, I whispered. You don’t know me. Let’s get to know each other better.
Her eyes were beaten, baffled. Love was that simple to her; it could be turned on or off in a moment.
You just think I’m nothing, she whimpered.
I reached out my hand to touch her, to speak to her, to try to tell her of my life, my feelings, my doubts; and she leaped to her feet.
I hate you, she burst out in a passionate whisper and ran out of the room. Pg 192
Interviewer: Any other important characters?
NC: Yes there is Granny and also Aunt Addie.
Granny was an ardent member of the seventh day Adventist church and I was compelled to make a pretense of worshipping her God, which was her exaction for my keep. The elders of her church expounded a gospel clogged with images of vast lakes of eternal fire, of seas vanishing, of valleys of dry bones, of the sun burning to ashes, of the moon turning to blood, of stars falling to the earth, of a wooden staff being transformed into a serpent, of voices speaking out of clouds, of men walking upon water, of God riding whirlwinds, of water changing into wine, of the dead rising and living, of the blind seeing, of the lame walking: a salvation that teemed with fantastic beasts having multiple heads and horns and eyes and feet; sermons of statues possessing heads of gold, shoulders of sliver, legs of braces, and feet of clay; a cosmic tale that began before time and ended with the clouds of the sky rolling away at the second coming of Christ; chronicles that concluded with the Armageddon; drams thronged with all the billions of human beings who had ever lived or died as God judged the quick and the dead.
While listening to the vivid language of the sermons I was pulled toward emotional belief, but as soon as I went out of the church and saw the bright sunshine and felt the throbbing life of the people in the streets I knew that none of it was true and that nothing would happen. Pg 88
Granny and Aunt Addie changed towards me, giving me up for lost; they told me that they were dead to the world, and those of their blood who lived in the world were therefore dead to them. From urgent solicitude they dropped to coldness and hostility. Only my mother, who had in the meantime recovered somewhat, maintained her interest in me, urging me to study hard and make up for squandered time.
Freedom brought problems: I needed textbooks and had to wait for months to obtain them. Granny said that she would not buy worldly books for me. My clothes were a despair. So hostile did granny and Aunt Addie become that they ordered me to wash and iron my own clothes. Eating was still skimpy, but I had now adjusted myself to the starch, lard and greens diet. I went to school feeling that my life depended not so much on learning as upon getting into another world of people.
Until I entered Jim Hill public school, I had had but one year of unbroken study; with the exception of one year at the church school, each time I had begun a school then something happened to disrupt it. Already my personality was lopsided; my knowledge of feeling was far greater than my knowledge of fact. Though I was not aware of it, the next four years were to be the only opportunity for formal study in my life. Pg 106
I studied night and day and within two weeks I was promoted to the sixth grade. Overjoyed, I ran home and babbled the news. The family had not thought it possible. How could a bad, bad boy do that? I told the family emphatically that I was going to study medicine, engage in research, make discoveries. Flushed with success, I had not given a second’s thought to how I would pay my way through a medical school. But since I had leaped a grade in two weeks, anything seemed possible, simple, easy.
I was now with boys and girls who were studying, fighting, talking; it revitalized my being, whipped my senses to a high, keen pitch of receptivity. I knew that my life was revolving about a world that I had to encounter and fight when I grew up. Suddenly the future loomed tangibly for me, as tangible as a future can loom for a black boy in Mississippi.
Most of my schoolmates worked mornings, evenings, and Saturdays; they earned enough to buy their clothes and books, and they had money in their pockets at school. To see a boy go into a grocery store at noon recess and let his eyes roam over filled shelves and pick out what he wanted – even a dime’s worth – was a hairsbreadth short of a miracle to me. But when I broached the idea of my working to Granny, she would have none of it; she laid down the injunction that I could not work on Saturdays while I slept under her roof. I argued that Saturdays were the only days on which I could earn any worthwhile sum, and Granny looked me straight in the eyes and quoted scripture. Pg 109
On one such lazy, hot summer night granny and mother and Aunt Addie were sitting on the front porch, arguing some obscure points of religious doctrine. I sat huddled on the steps, my cheeks resting sullenly in my palms, half listening to what what the grown- ups were saying and half lost in a daydream. Suddenly the dispute evoked an idea in me, and I forgetting that I had no right to speak without permission, I piped up and had my say. I must have sounded reekingly blasphemous for Granny said shut you up, and leaned forward promptly to chastise me with one of her casual back handed slaps on my mouth. But I had by now become adept at dodging blows and I nimbly ducked my head. She missed me; the force of her blow was so strong that that she fell down the steps, headlong, her aged body wedged in a narrow space, between the fence and the bottom step. I leaped up, Aunt Addie and my mother screamed and rushed down the steps and tried to pull granny’s body out. Pg 116
You see what you’ve done to Granny, she said.
I didn’t touch her, I said. I had wanted to ask how Granny was, but my fear made me forget that.
You were trying to kill her, Aunt Addie said.
I didn’t touch Granny, and you know it.
You are evil. You bring nothing but trouble.
I was trying to dodge her. She was trying to hit me. I had done nothing wrong.
Her lips moved silently as she sought to formulate words to place me in a position of guilt.
Why do you butt in when grown people are talking? She demanded, finding her weapon at last.
I just wanted to talk, I mumble silently. I sit in the house for hours and I can’t even talk.
Hereafter, you keep your mouth shut until you’re spoken to. She advised me.
But granny oughtn’t always be hitting at me like that. I said as delicately as possible.
Boy don’t you stand there and say what granny ought to do, she blazed, finding her ground of accusation. If you don’t keep your mouth shut, then I’ll hit you. She continued.
I’m only trying to explain why granny fell, I said.
Shut up, now. Or I’ll wring your neck, you fool.
You’re another fool. I came back at her, angry now.
She trembled with fury.
I’ll fix you this night, she said rushing at me.
I dodged her and ran into the kitchen and grabbed the long bread knife. She followed me and I confronted her. I was so hysterical that I was crying.
If you touch me, I’ll cut you, so help me, I said in gasps. I’m going to leave here as soon as I can work and make a living. But as long as I’m here, you better not touch me.
We stood looking into each other’s eyes, our bodies trembling with hate.
I’m going to get you for this, she vowed in a long serious voice.
I’ll get you when you haven’t got a knife.
I’ll always keep a knife for you, I told her.
You’ve got to sleep at night, she whimpered with rage. I’ll get you then.
If you touch me when I’m sleeping, I’ll kill you, I told her. She walked out of the kitchen, kicking the door open before her as she went. Aunt Addie had a habit of kicking doors; she always paused before a partly opened door and kicked it open; if the door swung in, she flung it back with her foot; or if the door was shut, she opened it with her hand for an inch or two, then opened it the rest of the way with her foot, she acted as though she wanted to get a glimpse into the room beyond before she entered it, perhaps to see if it contained anything dreadful or unholy.
For a month after that I took a kitchen knife to bed with me each night, hiding it under my pillow so that when Aunt Addie came I would protect myself. But she never came. Perhaps she prayed.
Granny was abed for six weeks. She had wrenched her back when her slap missed me.
There were more violent quarrels in our deeply religious home than in the home of a gangster, a burglar, or a prostitute, a fact which I used to hint gently to Granny and which did my cause no good. Granny bore the standard for God, but she was always fighting. The peace that passed understanding never dwelt with us. I too fought; but I fought because I felt I had to keep from being crushed, to fend off continuous attack. But granny and Aunt Addie quarreled and fought not only with me, but with each other over minor points of religious doctrine, over some imagined infraction of what they chose to call the moral code. Where I found a religion in my life I found strife, the attempts of one individual or group to rule another in the name of God. The naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn. Pg 118
Interviewer: Books concerned with Negroes or Africans, most often involve immigration. Immigration seems already a part of Black Boy. Ndi Charles, do you think this is interwoven with the children of Israel, who do not have a fixed home?
NC: LOL, Richard’s mother set off on a series of moves through Mississipi and Arkansas desperate to take care of her family in spite of her own fragile health, however I do not think Immigration on the part of blacks or Africans is certainly for the same reason as the Israelis. There are experiences replete over Black boy that share similarities with today’s experiences in Africa, but Richard Wright’s Black boy is also not about Africa
In Memphis we lived in a one-story brick tenement. The stone buildings and the concrete pavement looked bleak and hostile to me. The absence of green, growing things made the city seem dead. Living space for the four of us—my mother, my brother, my father, and me—was a kitchen and a bedroom. In the front and rear were paved areas in which my brother and I could play, but for days I was afraid to go into the strange city streets alone.
It was in this tenement that the personality of my father first came fully into the orbit of my concern. He worked as a night porter in a Beale street drug store and he became important and forbidding for me only when I learned that I could not make noise when he was asleep in the daytime. He was the lawgiver in our family and I never laughed in his presence. I used to lurk timidly in the kitchen doorway and watch his huge body sitting slumped at the table. I stared at him with awe as he gulped his beer from a tin bucket, as he ate long and heavily, sighed, belched, closed his eyes to void on a stuffed belly. He was quite fat and his bloated stomach always lapped over his belly. He was always a stranger to me, always shallow, alien and remote. Pg 7
I was so eager to be gone that when I stood in the front hallway packed and ready, I did not even think of saying goodbye to the boys and girls with whom I had eaten and slept and lived for so many weeks. My mother scolded me for my thoughtlessness and bade me say goodbye to them. Reluctantly, I obeyed her, wishing that I did not have to do so. As I shook dingy palms extended to me I kept my eyes averted, not wanting to look again into faces that hurt me because they had become so thoroughly associated in my feelings with hunger and fear. In shaking hands, I was doing something that I was to do countless times in the years to come: acting in conformity with what others expected of me even though, by the very nature and form of my life, I did not and could not share their spirit.
After I had withered the shocks of childhood, after the habit of reflection had been born in me, I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions, how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our despair. After I had learned other ways of life I used to brood upon the unconscious irony that those who felt that Negroes led so passional an existence! I saw that what had been taken for our emotional strength was our negative confusions, our fights, our fears, our frenzy under pressure.
Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it. And when I brooded upon the cultural barrenness of black life, I wondered if clean, positive tenderness, love, honor, loyalty and the capacity to remember were native with man. I asked myself if these human qualities were not fostered, won, struggled and suffered for, preserved in ritual from one generation to another. Pg 31
Out of my salary I had begun to save a few dollars, for my determination to leave had not lessened. But I found the saving exasperatingly slow. I pondered continuously ways of making money, and the only ways that I could think of involved transgressions of the law. No, I must not do that, I told myself. To go to jail in the south would mean the end. And there was the possibility that if I were ever caught I would never reach jail.
This was the first time in my life that I had ever consciously entertained the idea of violating laws of the land. I had felt that my intelligence and industry could cope with all situations, and until that time, I had never stolen a penny from anyone. Even hunger had never driven me to appropriate what was not my own. The mere idea of stealing had been repugnant. I had not been honest from deliberate motives, but being dishonest had simply never occurred to me.
Yet, all about me, Negroes were stealing. More than once, I had been called a dumb nigger by black boys who discovered that I had not availed myself of a chance to snatch some petty piece of white property that had been carelessly left within my reach.
How in hell you gonna get ahead? I had been asked when I had said that one ought not to steal.
I knew that the boys in the hotel filched whatever they could. I knew that Griggs, my friend who worked in the Capitol street jewelry store, was stealing regularly and successfully. I knew that a black neighbor of mine was stealing bags of grain from a wholesale house where he worked, though he was a staunch deacon in his church and prayed and sang on Sundays. I knew that the black girls who worked in white homes stole food daily to supplement their scanty wages. And I knew that the very nature of black and white relations bred this constant thievery.
No Negroes in my environment had ever thought of organizing no matter in how orderly a fashion, and petitioning their white employers for higher wages. The very thought would have been terrifying to them, and they knew that the whites would have retaliated with swift brutality. So, pretending to conform to the laws of the whites, grinning, bowing, they let their fingers stick to what they could touch. And the whites seemed to like it.
But 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. Pg 175
Interviewer: How does Richard relate to other characters in Black Boy?
NC: Richard’s relationships with other characters are strictly within the confinements of opposition, domination, submission and struggle. By Page 9, Richard had his first triumph over his father. Richard also tries his damnedest to escape a beating.
I stood fighting, fighting as I had never fought in my life, fighting myself. Perhaps my uneasy childhood, perhaps my shifting from town to town, perhaps the violence I had already seen and felt took hold of me, and I was trying to stifle the impulse to go to the drawer of the kitchen table and get a knife and defend myself. But this woman who stood before me was my aunt, my mother’s sister, granny’s daughter; in her veins my own blood flowed; in many of her actions I could see some elusive part of my own self; and in her speech I could catch echoes of my speech. I did not want to be violent with her, and yet I did not want to be beaten for a wrong I had not committed. Pg 93
Aunt Addie took her defeat hard, holding me in a cold and silent disdain. I was conscious that she had descended to my emotional level in her effort to rule me, and my respect for her sank. Until she married, years later, we rarely spoke to each other, though we ate at the same table and slept under the same roof, though I was but a skinny, half – frightened boy and she was the secretary of the church and the church’s day school teacher. God blessed our home with the love that binds. Pg 95
One morning I was aroused by my Uncle’s voice calling gently but persistently. I opened my eyes and saw the dim blob of his face peering from behind the jamb of the kitchen door.
What time have you? I thought he asked me, but I was not sure.
Hunh? I mumbled sleepily.
What time have you got. He repeated.
I lifted myself on my elbow and looked at my dollar watch, which lay on the chair at the bedside. Eighteen past five, I mumbled, Eighteen past five? He asked.
Now, is that the right time? He asked again.
I was tired, sleepy; I did not want to look at the watch again, but I was satisfied that, on the whole, I had given him the correct time.
It’s right, I said snuggling back down into my pillow. If it’s a little slow or fast, it’s not far wrong.
There was a short silence, I thought he had gone.
What on earth do you mean boy? He asked in loud anger. I sat up blinking, staring into the shadows of the room, trying to see the expression on his face.
What do I mean? I asked, bewildered. I mean what I said. Had I given him the wrong time? I looked again at my watch. It’s twenty past now.
Why, you impudent black rascal, he thundered.
I pushed back the covers of the bed, sensing trouble.
What are you angry about? I asked.
I never hear a sassier black imp than you in all my life, he spluttered.
I swung my feet to the floor so that I could watch him.
What are you talking about, I asked. You asked me the time and I told you.
If it’s a little fast or slow, it’s not far wrong, he said imitating me in an angry, sarcastic voice. I’ve taught school for thirty years and by God I’ve never had a boy say anything like that to me.
But what’s wrong with what I said? I asked, amazed.
Shut up! He shouted. Or I’ll take my fist and ram it down your sassy throat. One more word out of you, and I’ll get a limb and teach you a lesson.
What’s the matter with you, Uncle Tom? I asked. What’s wrong with what I said?
I could hear his breath whistling in his throat, I knew that he was furious.
This day I’m going to give you the whipping some man ought to have given you long ago, he vowed.
I got to my feet and grabbed my clothes; the whole thing seemed unreal. I had been confronted so suddenly with struggle that I could not pull all the strings of the situation together at once. I did not feel that I had given him cause to say I was sassy. I had spoken to him just as I spoke to everybody. Others did not resent my words, so why should he? I heard him go out of the kitchen door and I knew that he had gone into the backyard. I pulled on my clothes and ran to the window; I saw him tearing a long, young, green switch from the elm tree. My body tightened. I was damned if he was going to beat me with it. Until a few days ago, he had never lived near me, had never had any say in my rearing or lack of rearing. I was working, eating my meals out, buying my own clothes, giving what few pennies I could to granny to help out in the house. And now a strange uncle who felt that I was impolite was going to teach me to act as I had seen the backward black boy act on the plantations, was going to teach me to grin, hang my head and mumble apologetically when I was spoken to.
My senses reeled in protest. No, that could not be. He would not beat me. He was only bluffing. His anger would pass. He would think it over and realize that it was not worth all the bother. Dressed, I sat on the edge of the bed and waited. I heard his footsteps come onto the black porch. I felt weak all over. How long was this going to last? How long was I going to be beaten for trifles and less than trifles? I was already so conditioned towards my relatives that when I passed them I actually had a nervous tic in my muscles, and now I was going to be beaten by someone who did not like the tone of voice in which I spoke. I ran across the room and pulled out the dresser and got my pack of razor blades; I opened it and took a thin blade of blue steel in each hand. I stood ready, ready for him. The door opened. I was hoping desperately that this was not true, that this dream would end. Pg 139
Interviewer: Are there any similarities between Richard and us black skinned men?
NC: Hunger, a constant part of Richard’s life, seems also by extension a constant in black lives.
Hunger stole upon me so slowly that at first I was not aware of what hunger really meant. Hunger has always been more or else at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me garishly. The hunger I had known before this had been no grim hostile stranger; it had been a normal hunger that had made me beg constantly for bread, and when I ate a crust or two was satisfied. But this new hunger baffled me, scared me, made me angry and insistent. Pg 11
After my father’s desertion, my mother’s ardently religious disposition dominated the household and I was often taken to Sunday school where I met God’s representative in the guise of a tall black preacher. One Sunday, my mother invited the tall, black preacher to a dinner of fried chicken. I was happy, not because the preacher was coming but because of the chicken. One or two neighbors were also invited. But no sooner had the preacher arrived, than I began to resent him; for I learned at once that he, like my father, was used to having his own way. The hour for dinner came and I was wedged at the table between talking and laughing adults. In the center of the table was a huge platter of golden brown fried chicken. I compared the bowl of soup that sat before me with the crispy chicken and decided in favor of the chicken. The others began to eat their soup, but I could not touch mine.
Eat your soup, my mother said.
I don’t want any, I said.
You won’t get anything unless you’ve eaten your soup, she said.
The preacher had finished his soup and asked that the platter of chicken be passed to him. It galled me. He smiled, cocked his head this way and that, picking out choice pieces. I forced a spoonful of soup down my throat and looked to see if my speed matched that of the preacher. It did not. There were already bare chicken bones on his plate, and he was reaching for more. I tried eating my soup faster but it was no use; the other people were now serving themselves chicken and the platter was more than half empty. I gave up and sat staring in despair at the vanishing pieces of fried chicken.
Eat your soup or you won’t get anything, my mother warned.
I looked at her appealingly and could not answer. As piece after piece of chicken was eaten, I was unable to eat my soup at all. I grew hot with anger. The preacher was laughing and joking and the grown – ups were hanging on his words. My growing hate of the preacher finally became more important than God or religion and I could no longer contain myself. I leaped up from the table, knowing that I should be ashamed of what I was doing, but unable to stop, and screamed, running blindly from the room.
That preacher’s going to eat all the chicken! I bawled.
The preacher tossed back his head and roared with laughter, but my mother was angry and told me that I was to have no dinner because of my bad manners. Pg 22
The most abiding feeling I had each day was hunger and fear. The meals were skimpy and only two of them. Just before we went to bed each night, we were given a slice of bread smeared with molasses. The children were silent, hostile, vindictive, continuously complaining of hunger. There was an overall atmosphere of nervousness and intrigue, of children telling tales upon others, of children been deprived of food to punish them.
Wide stretches of grass were cut by cutlasses that caused blisters on our hands. Yet we had to continue, till we had completed our batches for the day.
Miss Simon tried to win my confidence; she asked me If I would like to be adopted by her if my mother consented and I said no. She would take me into her apartment and talk to me, but her words had no effect. Dread and mistrust had already become a daily part of my being and my memory grew sharp, my senses more impressionable; I began to be aware of myself as a distinct personality striving against others. I held myself in, afraid to act or speak until I was sure of my surroundings: feeling most of the time that I was suspended over a void. My imagination soared, I dreamed of running away. Each morning, I vowed that, I would leave the next morning, but the next morning always found me afraid. Pg 25
Interviewer: Give us readers, some inside scoop on Richard.
NC: By page 16, and only six years old, Richard was already a drunkard.
Richard found it irresistible to roam during the day while mother was cooking for white folks. A block away from their flat was a saloon in front of which Richard loitered, begging pennies daily. Richard was both frightened and fascinated by the saloon, he peered under the swinging doors to watch men & women drinking. When some neighbors chased him away, Richard followed the drunk, trying to understand their mumblings, pouting, teasing, laughing, imitating, mocking and taunting their antics.
One day, Richard was dragged into the saloon and put upon a counter by a man. Placing his hat on Richard’s head, a drink was ordered for Richard to the delight of tipsy men and women. Someone even tried to jam a cigar in Richard’s mouth but he twisted away.
Drink it, it’ll make you feel good, he said
I took a sip and coughed. The men and women laughed. The entire crowd in the salon gathered about me now, urging me to drink. I took another sip. Then another. My head spun and I laughed. I was put on the floor and I ran giggling and shouting among the yelling crowd. As I would pass each man, I would take a sip from an offered glass. Soon I was drunk.
A man called me to him and whispered some words into my ear and told me that he would give me a nickel if I went to a woman and repeated them to her. I told him that I would say them; he gave me the nickel and I ran to the woman and shouted the words. A gale of laughter went up in the saloon. Pg 17
The coal delivery man took a liking to Richard and taught him to count. This happened after Richard could not determine how much change he was owed. Richard impressed mother with his skills, then she read him stories. On Sundays they read the newspapers, with mother guiding and spelling out words. Richard stumbled upon the relations between blacks and whites and was frightened by what he learned.
I stood in the middle of the sidewalk and cried. A white policeman came to me and I wondered if he was going to beat me. He asked me what was the matter and I told him I was trying to find my mother. His white face created a new fear in me. I was remembering the tale of the white man who had beaten the black boy. A crowd gathered and I was urged to tell where I lived. Curiously, I was too full of fear to cry now. I wanted to tell the white face that I had run from an orphan home and that miss Simon ran it, but I was afraid. Finally, I was taken to the police station, where I was fed. I felt better. I sat in a big chair where I was surrounded by white policemen but they seemed to ignore me. Through the window, I could see that night had completely fallen and that light now gleamed in the streets. I grew sleepy and dozed. My shoulder was shaken gently and I opened my eyes and looked into a white face of another policeman who was sitting beside me. He asked me questions in a quiet, confidential tone, and quite before I knew it he was not white anymore. I told him that I had run away from an orphan home and that Miss Simon ran it. Pg 27
One woman had assumed that I would tell her if I stole, and now this woman was amazed that I could not milk a cow, I a nigger who dared live in Jackson. Pg 130
Can I go and peep at the white folks? I asked my mother.
You keep quiet, she said.
But that wouldn’t be wrong, would it?
Will you keep still?
But why can’t i?
Quit talking foolishness.
I had begun to notice that my mother became irritated when I questioned her about whites and blacks, and I could not quite understand it. I wanted to understand these two sets of people who lived side by side and never touched, it seemed, except in violence.
Now there was my grandmother…… Was she white? Just how white was she? What did the whites think of her whiteness?
Mama is granny white? I asked as the train rolled through the darkness.
If you’ve got eyes, you can see what color she is, my mother said.
I mean, do the white folks think she’s white.
Why don’t you ask the white folks that? She countered.
But you know, I insisted.
Why should I know, she asked. I’m not white.
Granny looks white, I said hoping to establish one fact, at least. Then why is she living with us colored folks?
Don’t you want granny to live with us, she asked, blunting my question.
Then why are you asking?
I want to know
Doesn’t granny live with us?
Isn’t that enough?
But does she want to live with us?
Why didn’t you ask granny that? My mother evaded me again in a taunting voice.
Did granny become colored when she married grandpa?
Will you stop asking silly questions?
But did she?
Granny didn’t become colored, my mother said angrily. She was born the color she is now.
Again I was being shut out of the secret, the thing, the reality I felt somewhere beneath all the words and silences.
Why didn’t grandma marry a white man? I asked.
Because she didn’t want to, my mother said peevishly.
Why don’t you want to talk to me? I asked.
She slapped me, and I cried. Later, grudgingly she told me that granny came of Irish, Scotch, and French stock in which negro blood had somewhere and somehow been infused. She explained it all in a matter of fact, offhand, neutral way, her emotions were not involved at all.
What was granny’s name before she married grandpa?
Who gave her that name?
The white man who owned her
She was a slave?
And Bolden was the name of granny’s father?
Granny doesn’t know who her father was
So they just gave her any name?
They gave her a name; that’s all I know
Couldn’t granny find out who her father was?
For what, silly?
So she could know
Know for what?
Just to know
But for what?
I could not say. I could not get anywhere
Mama, where did my father get his name?
From his father
And where did the father of my father get his name?
Like granny got hers, from a white man
Do they know who he is?
I don’t know
Why don’t they find out?
For what? My mother demanded harshly
And I could think of no rational or practical reason why my father should try to find out who his father’s father was.
What has papa got in him? I asked
Some white and some red and some black, she said
Indian, white and negro?
Then what am i?
They’ll call you a colored man when you grow up, she said. Then she turned to me and smiled mockingly and asked. Do you mind, Mr Wright?
I was angry and did not answer. I did not object to being called colored, but I knew there was something my mother was holding back. She was not concealing facts but feelings, attitudes, convictions which she did not want me to know. And she became angry when I prodded her. All right, I would find out someday. Just wait. All right I was colored. It was fine. I did not know enough to be afraid or to anticipate in a concrete manner. True I had heard that colored people were killed and beaten, but so far it all had seemed remote. There was of course, a vague uneasiness about it all, but I would be able to handle that when I came to it. It would be simple, if anybody tried to kill me, then I would kill them first. Pg 42
One evening, I heard a tale that rendered me sleepless for nights. It was of a Negro woman, whose husband had been seized and killed by a mob. It was claimed that the woman vowed she would avenge her husband’s death and she took a shotgun, wrapped it in a sheet, and went humbly to the whites, pleading that she be allowed to take her husband’s body for burial. It seemed that she was granted permission to come to the side of her dead husband while the whites, silent and armed, looked on. The woman, so went the story, knelt and prayed, then proceeded to unwrap the sheet: and, before the white men realized what was happening she had taken the gun from the sheet and had slain four of them, shooting at them from her knees. Pg 63
Interviewer: Did Richard have any direct clashes with whites?
NC: Yes of course he did.
The penalty of death awaited me if I made a false move and I wondered if it was worthwhile to make any move at all. The things that influence my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness. Indeed the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew. The actual experience would have let me see the realistic outlines of what was really happening, but as long as it remained something terrible and yet remote, something whose hour and blood might descend upon me at any moment, I was compelled to give my entire imagination over to it, an act which blocked the springs of thought and feeling in me, creating a sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived. Pg 151
My life now depended on my finding work, and I was so anxious that I accepted the first offer, a job as a porter in a clothing store selling cheap goods to Negroes on credit. The shop was always crowded with black men and women pawing over cheap suits and dresses. And they paid whatever price the white man asked. The boss, his son, and the clerk treated the Negroes with open contempt, pushing, kicking or slapping them. No matter how often I witnessed it, I could not get used to it. How can they accept it? I asked myself. I kept on edge, trying to stifle my feelings and never quite succeeding, a prey to guilt and fear because I felt that the boss suspected that I resented what I saw.
One morning, while I was polishing brass out front, the boss and his son drove up in their car. A frightened black woman sat between them. They got out and half dragged and half kicked the woman into the store. White people passed and looked on without expression. A white policeman watched from the corner, twirling his night stick, but he made no move. I watched out of the corner of my eyes, but I never slackened the strokes of my chamois upon the brass. After a moment or two I heard shrill screams coming from the rear room of the store; later the woman stumbled out, bleeding, crying, holding her stomach, her clothing torn. When she reached the sidewalk, the policeman met her, grabbed her, accused her of being drunk, called a patrol wagon and carted her away.
When I went to the back of the store, the boss and his son were washing their hands at the sink. They looked at me and laughed uneasily. The floor was bloody, strewn with wisps of hair and clothing. My face must have reflected my shock, for the boss slapped me reassuringly on the back.
Boy, that’s what we do to niggers when they don’t pay their bills, he said.
His son looked at me and grinned.
Here, have a cigarette, he said.
Not knowing what to do, I took it. He lit his and held the match for me. This gesture of kindness, indicating that, even if they had beaten the black woman, they would not beat me if I knew enough to keep my mouth shut.
Yes sir, I said.
After they had gone, I sat on the edge of a packing box and stared at the bloody floor till the cigarette went out.
The store owned a bicycle which I used in delivering purchases. One day while returning from the suburbs, my bicycle tire was punctured. I walked along the hot, dusty road sweating and leading the bicycle by the handle bars.
A car slowed at my side.
What’s the matter there, boy? A white man called.
I told him that my bicycle was broken and that I was walking back to town.
That’s too bad, he said. Hop on the running board.
He stopped the car. I clutched hard at my bicycle with one hand and clung to the side of the car with the other.
The car started. It was full of white men. They were drinking. I watched the flask pass from mouth to mouth.
Wanna drink boy? One asked.
The memory of my six year old drinking came back and filled me with caution. But I laughed, the wind whipping my face.
Oh no! I said.
The words were rarely out of my mouth before I felt something hard and cold smash me between the eyes. It was an empty whisky bottle. I saw stars and fell backwards from the speeding car into the dust of the road, my feet becoming entangled in the steel spokes of the bicycle. The car stopped and the white men piled out and stood over me.
Nigger, aint you learned no better sense n that yet? Asked the man who hit me. Ain’t you learned to say Sir to a white man yet?
Dazed, I pulled to my feet. My elbow and legs were bleeding. Fists doubled, the white man advanced, kicking the bicycle out of the way.
Aw, leave the bastard alone. He’s got enough, said one.
They stood looking at me. I rubbed my shins, trying to stop the flow of blood. No doubt they felt a contemptuous pity, for one asked.
You wanna ride to town now, nigger? You reckon you know enough to ride now?
I wanna walk, I said simply.
Maybe I sounded funny. They laughed.
Well, walk you sonofabitch!
Before they got back into their car, they comforted me with:
Nigger you sure ought to be glad it was us you talked to that way. You’re a lucky bastard, cause if you’d said that to some other white man, you might’ve been a dead nigger now.
I was learning rapidly how to watch white people, to observe their every move, every fleeting expression, how to interpret what was said and what was left unsaid. Pg 159
Do you want to get killed? He asked me.
Then for God’s sake, learn how to live in the south!
What do you mean? I demanded. Let white people tell me that. Why should you?
See? He said triumphantly, pointing his finger at me. There it is now! It’s in your face. You won’t let people tell you things. You rush too much. I’m trying to help you and you won’t let me. He paused and looked about; the streets were filled with white people. He spoke to me in a low full tone. Dick, look, you’re black, black, see? Can’t you understand that?
Sure. I understand it, I said.
You don’t act a damn bit like it, he spat.
He then reeled off an account of my actions on every job I had held that summer.
How did you know that? I asked.
White people make it their business to watch niggers, he explained. And they pass the word around. Now, my boss is a Yankee and he tells me things. You’re marked already.
Could I believe him? Was it true? How could I ever learn this strange world of white people?
Then tell me how I must act? I asked humbly. I just want to make enough money to leave.
Wait and I’ll tell you, he said.
At that moment a woman and two men stepped from the jewelry store; I moved to one side to let them pass, my mind intent upon Grigg’s words. Suddenly Griggs reached for my arm and jerked me violently, sending me stumbling three or four feet across the pavement. I whirled.
What’s the matter with you? I asked.
Griggs glared at me, then laughed.
I’m teaching you how to get out of white people’s way, he said. I looked at the people who had come out of the store; yes, they were white, but I had not noticed it.
Do you see what I mean? He asked. White people want you out of their way. He pronounced the words slowly so that they would sink into my mind.
I know what you mean, I breathed.
Dick, I’m treating you like a brother, he said. You act around white people as if you didn’t know they were white. And they see it.
Oh Christ, I can’t be a slave, I said hopelessly.
But you’ve got to eat, he said.
Yes, I’ve got to eat.
Then start acting like it, he hammered at me, pounding his fist in his palm. When you’re in front of white people, think before you act, think before you speak. Your way of doing things is all right among our people, but not for white people. They won’t stand for it.
I stared bleakly into the morning sun. I was nearing my seventeenth birthday and I was wondering if I could ever be free to this plague. What Griggs was saying was true, but it was simply utterly impossible for me to calculate, to scheme, to act, to plot all the time. I wuld remember to dissemble for short periods, then I would forget and act straight and human again, not with the desire to harm anybody, but merely forgetting the artificial status of race and class. It was the same with whites as with blacks; it was my way with everybody. I sighed, looking at the glittering diamonds in the store window, the rings and the neat rows of golden watches.
I guess you’re right, I said at last. I’ve got to watch myself, break myself.
No, he said quickly, feeling guilty now. Someone—a white man—went into the store and we paused in our talk. You know, Dick you may think I’m an uncle Tom, but I’m not. I hate these white people, hate em with all my heart. But I can’t show it, if I did, they’d kill me. He paused and looked around to see if there were any white people within hearing distance. Once, I heard an old drunk nigger say:
All these white folks dressed so fine
Their assholes smell just like mine…
I laughed uneasily, looking at the white faces that passed me. But Griggs, when he laughed, covered his mouth with his hand and bent at the knees, a gesture which was unconsciously meant to conceal his excessive joy in the presence of whites. Pg 162
At his job, Richard’s boss sets him up to fight another black boy, Harrison. For weeks, Harrison’s boss egged Harrison to fight Richard, he even bought him a knife. Richard’s boss did the same. The white bosses eventually got them to fight each other for five dollars. Harrison said he needed the five dollars to buy a suit.
The fight took place one Saturday afternoon in the basement of a Main street building. Each white man who attended the fight dropped his share of the pot into a hat that sat on the concrete floor. Only white men were allowed in the basement; no women or Negroes were admitted. Harrison and I were stripped to the waist. A bright electric bulb glowed above our heads. As the gloves were tied on my hands, I looked at Harrison and saw his eyes watching me. Would he keep his promise? Doubt made me nervous.
We squared off and at once I knew that I had not thought sufficiently about what I had bargained for. I could not pretend to even a child for a moment. Now shame filled me. The white men were smoking and yelling obscenities at us.
Crush that nigger’s guts, nigger!
Hit that nigger!
Aw, fight, you goddamn niggers!
Sock im in his f—k—g piece
Make I’m bleed
I lashed out with a timid left. Harrison landed high on my head and before I knew it, I had landed a hard right on Harrison’s mouth and blood came. Harrison shoved a blow to my nose. The fight was on, on against my will. I felt trapped and ashamed. I lashed out even harder, and the harder I fought the harder Harrison fought. Our plans and promises now meant nothing. We fought four hard rounds, stabbing, slugging, grunting, spitting, cursing, crying, bleeding. The shame and anger we felt for having allowed ourselves to be duped crept into our blows and blood ran into our eyes, half blinding us. The hate we felt for the men whom we had tried to cheat went into the blows we threw at each other. The white men made the rounds last as long as five minutes and each of us was afraid to stop and ask for time for fear of receiving a blow that would knock us out. When we were at the point of collapsing from exhaustion, the pulled us apart. Pg 213
Interviewer: What can you tell us about Black on Black relations?
Having grown taller and older, I now associated with older boys and I had to pay for my admittance into their company by subscribing to certain racial sentiments. The touchstone of fraternity was my feelings towards white people, how much hostility I held towards them, what degrees of values and honor I assigned to race. None of this was premeditated, but sprang spontaneously out of the talk of black boys who met at the crossroads.
We spouted excessive profanity as a sign of our coming manhood. We pretended callousness towards the injunction of our parents. We strove to convince one another that our decisions stemmed from ourselves and ourselves alone. We frantically concealed how we relied on each other’s advice.
The culture of one black household was thus transmitted to another black household, and folk tradition was handed from group to group. Our attitudes were made, defined, set or corrected; our ideas were discovered, enlarged, torn apart, and accepted. Night would fall. Bats would zip through the air. Crickets would cry from the grass. Frogs would croak. The stars would come out. Dew would dampen the earth. Yellow squares of light would glow in the distance as kerosene lamps were lit in our homes. Pg 70
We were now large enough for the white boys to fear us and both of us, the white boys and the black boys, began to play our traditional racial roles as though we had been born to them, as though it was in our blood, as though we were been guided by instinct. All the frightful expressions we had heard about each other, all the violent expressions of hate and hostility that had seeped into us from our surroundings, came now to the surface to guide our actions. The roundhouse was the racial boundary of the neighborhood, and it had been tacitly agreed between the white boys and the black boys that the whites were to keep to the far side of the roundhouse and we blacks were to keep to our side. Whenever we caught a white boy on our side we stoned him, if we strayed to their side, they stoned us.
Our battles were real and bloody, we threw rocks, cinders, coal, sticks, pieces of iron, and broken bottles, and while we threw them we longed for even deadlier weapons. If we were hurt, we took it quietly; there was no crying or whimpering. If our wounds were not truly serious, we hid them from our parents. We did not want to be beaten for fighting. Once, in a battle with a gang of white boys, I was struck behind the ear by with a piece of broken bottle; the cut was deep and bled profusely. I tried to stem the flow of blood by dabbing at the cut with a rag and when my mother came from work I was forced to tell her that I was hurt, for I needed medical attention. She rushed me to a doctor who stitched my scalp; but when she took me home she beat me, telling me that I must never fight white boys again, that I might be killed by them, that she had to work and had no time to worry about my fights. Her words did not sink in, for they conflicted with the code of the streets. I promised my mother that I would not fight; but I knew that if I kept my word I would lose my standing in the gang, and the gang’s life was my life. Pg 72
In the black protestant church I entered a new world: prim, brown, puritanical girls who taught in the public schools; black college students who tried to conceal their plantation origin; black boys and girls emerging self – consciously from adolescence; wobbly bosomed black and yellow church matrons; black janitors and porters who sang proudly in the choir; subdued redcom and carpenters who served as deacons, meek, blank eyed black and yellow washerwomen who shouted and moaned and danced when hymns were sung; jovial, pot – bellied black bishops; skinny old maids who were constantly giving rallies to raise money; snobbery, clannishness, gossips, intrigue, petty class rivalry and conspicuous displays of cheap clothing………I liked it and I did not like it; I longed to be among them, yet when with them I looked at them as if I were a million miles away. I had been kept out of their world, too long ever to be able to become a real part of it. Pg 132
Interviewer: What thoughts linger on your mind after reading Black Boy?
NC: The entire world is multiracial, our societies must work or tragedy reigns supreme. The similarities across yellow, black, brown, deep brown, reddish brown, dead yellow, chocolate, ginger bread, fair, light brown, red, pink, tan, olive, copper, blue, cream, pale black, dead black, bronze and banana skins are real and important.
PS: Among the topics that southern men did not like to discuss with Negroes were the following: American white women; the ku klux klan; France, and how Negro soldiers fared while there; French women; Jack Johnson; the entire northern part of the United States; the civil war, Abraham Lincoln; U.S Grant; General Sherman; Catholics; the Pope; Jews; the Republican party; slavery; social equality; communism; socialism; the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments to the constitution; or any topic calling for positive knowledge or manly self – assertion on the part of the Negro. Pg 202
Rejoinder: In France, Negro soldiers had white girlfriends. Jack Johnson, once heavyweight champion of the world, a Negro, had two white wives. The 13th, 14th, 15th amendments to the constitution are concerned with civil rights.
Interviewer: Thank you for your time Sir.
NC: You are welcome, always a pleasure.
©Ndi Charles 2016