Read and Know and Understand

A reflection/review of Black Boy, by Richard Wright

Note: I discussed this book in length with Cheryl Harris on the Twelve Enough podcast Empathy Read

There is a limit to what I can know. I do not just mean what I can know in the areas of physics and chemistry (because I just do not want to know anything in those areas of study – let me hold to my ignorance!), but I mean in a sense of overall knowledge and experience of life. There is a limit to what I can know when I consider what it is like to walk through Death Valley, to climb Mt. Everest, or to dive to the bottom of Mt. Mauna Kea. Unless I actually do these things I would never really understand what it is to experience the challenge and what it is like to be in those places. And I don’t think I really want to be that crazy. Yet I could. I could try to climb, or walk, or swim and experience such extreme places. With these experiences that thus far I have never had, the possibility still stands that I might have the experience. The potential for the experience and thus for knowing exists.

            Yet there are those things in the world that I will never know. I will never fully know what it is to be born and grow up in India. I will never understand the experience of being a young child in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, and I will never fully know what it is like to be a black child in the South in the 1930s and 40s. There is a limit to what I can know and experience and there are those places where the universality of our experiences cannot and do not overlap. The problem is that we interact with those we may not understand. We encounter those who are different than we are, those who have different experiences that we may never have and some how we need to learn to live and flourish with those we may not understand. Somehow we need to conceive of the possibility of an experience that we can never have for the sake of community. Here is where good writing comes in. Books can offer a window to the life unknown and bring us to a place of empathy and understanding.

            While this reflection is specifically about Richard Wright’s book, Black Boy, it speaks to more than simply one book. It speaks to what good writing can offer. Wright’s book invites the reader to have a view of a life and experience of growing up in in the Jim Crow South in the early 1900s, and then his experiences in Chicago with various political movements. Since I read the original, 1945 edition, I did not read the Chicago section and will not be speaking to that part of the work.

            In an honest and poetic way Wright brings the reader to encounter his feelings, share the smells, feel the pains, and voice the questions of his childhood. We hear his frustrations with his mother, his siblings, and his extended family as Wright constantly pushes forward in his thinking and pushes back against those who are calling him to be silent. We feel his hunger and his joy in the small moments of life with the little bit of food that he is allowed. We are brought to feel the tension and the longing in his relationship with his father. Before he even faces the hatred and the racism of white society we have a sense of the kind of person, the curiosity and strength of character that is a part of who Wright is. And when Wright enters into white society we walk with him, knowing that his strong sense of defiance and his hunger for life will complicate and color his interactions at various levels. And we see and experience the tension. As we experience with Wright the injustice of racism perhaps the white reader wants to apologize and say that there is more to these people who seem to only be holding you back and cutting you down. Perhaps the feelings of guilt pushes the white reader to want to take the young Wright’s hand and try to show him a different side of white people. Part of what makes Wright’s book so powerful is the way that he invites the reader into his own thoughts, his own struggles and pain in a very vulnerable way and does not pull any punches. It shows an anger and hatred towards those who are cutting him down and holding him back. It is as if he knows that a white audience will never understand what his pain and his struggles are and so is trying to share them in as real a way as possible.

There is a moment when Wright tips his hand to the reader and show his own understanding on how powerful books are in sharing and showing other worlds to people. It is almost a meta moment when a book opens Wright’s world to a broader experience reminding the reader what it is that we are doing as we read. It is when he starting reading H.L. Mencken and realized that there is more to white society than what he was experiencing. As he began to read more and more worlds opened up to him. Perhaps he is inviting the reader to have that same experience in reading Black Boy; have worlds open up. I will never truly and fully know what it is to be black in America, but Wright is challenging and inviting me to try and imagine the experience.

            Part of the story of Black Boy is a yearning for a hope, and for Wright the North offers that hope. Wright sees Chicago as a place where there is possibility for him to flourish and grow. He sees it as a place where he can escape the Jim Crow racism of Mississippi and Tennessee. And while we need only read the later editions to see what really happened, I wonder if there is something to not knowing the ending. There is an idealism that the reader can hold onto as we journey with the author into the unknown and the potential. Wright brings us through powerful and profound revelations as we meet H.L. Mencken, Shaw, and others through his own readings. We witness the world opening up for Wright through his exploration of books and in a story of pain and hunger and violence and anger we find a hope that Wright begins to aspire to claim. Now we all know that Chicago, a fine city on its own, is not the utopia that some may desire. After all, they have sports franchises that are not consistent in their athletic dominance and the reputation of politics in the Windy City is far from rosy. Some may say that I should read the second half of the book, I should get a sense of what the author encountered in Chicago, how his hopes was lost and the struggles that he continued to face. There is a good case to be made that we need to lose the idealism and face reality in life.

            Yet I want to hold out for hope and not read the rest of Wright’s book. Hope is a very important part of our life experiences; it can give us strength and courage to do things that we may never consider doing. Hope looks at the unknown and says, “yes.” Hope embraces the potential and we need to read books with hope. I wanted to put the book down after Wright made his way to Chicago. I didn’t need or want to know what happened next. When we watch a romantic comedy we see the wedding, we see the car driving off and the movie is over and we have hope (as long as it isn’t the ending of The Graduate). We don’t want to know how they are going to be as a couple in the next 5-10 years. We don’t want to know about the mundane challenges of life that they are going to face. It is a dream that we hold onto grounded in hope.

            The challenge is that in being invited into the experience of the author, in seeing his anger as well as his hope how would it be possible for me to assume that there is going to be a neat and tidy happy ending. He is going to a new place, carrying hope, but with all of the hurt and sorrow, anger and rejection that he has already experienced. I want to hold out to hope, but I need to keep it tempered with the reality that I have already seen and known in Wright’s book.

            Perhaps this speaks to the most difficult thing that it is to imagine and understand: the hopes and dreams of others. How can we know and understand the hopes and dreams of others if we do not know where it is that they are coming from and what they have experienced? How can we even begin to imagine what someone is looking forward to if we have no understanding about their past, their pain and their anguish? I know that I project a hope onto Wright’s book that is tempered by who I am, where I have come from, and what I hold to be important. It is a projection that is not fair to the main character, and even having been invited into his experiences, his pain and hurt, I cannot presume to know what it is that he desires. I cannot presume to be able to articulate his hope.

            The sharing of one’s experience will never be full or complete. It will be imperfect as we see in many poorly written memoirs. No matter how much the author opens up, or anyone opens up and shares we can never fully know the other. No matter how much we strive to understand the plight and life and experiences of someone we can never presume to know what kind of hope they may embrace or desire. It will be imperfect, but that should not keep us for striving, with humility, to know and understand someone else, and then to listen for the hope that they desire.

            And so I read Black Boy with a striving to understand but knowing that I will never fully understand. I strive to understand what hope might be like for someone who is not satisfied with the lot in life that he has received. I strive to understand what anger is towards a people who have judged and condemned him because of what he looks like. I strive to understand the distrust that is felt towards a people who have systematically tried to hold someone down. I strive to understand a complexity that I will never fully know.

            In essence, this book asks me to be human, to be uncomfortable, to have emotions as I read and then to realize that I will still know only in part. But such great writing brings me a little closer. And in a world where we see continued distrust, racism, oppression, anger, and tempered hope it is vitally important that we strive, inch by inch, to get as close as possible to knowing and understanding others and letting that knowledge and wisdom change who we are as a people.