Black Boy is routinely listed as Richard Wright’s autobiographical novel. But it’s important to realize that this work is not an autobiography or even a memoir: it is fiction. As such the author is free to use the elements of his life as grist for his fiction, but we should always read his story with the understanding that the events and characters in the novel may sometimes be manipulated for effect if they actually even occurred (emphasize: IF they are even remotely related to actual events).
A novel such as Black Boy should never be relied upon to tell the truth about a life and often cannot even be relied upon to project the essence of a life (although often fiction does a much better job of portraying truth than any non-fictional account).
Overall, I enjoy reading Wright; he’s certainly not the best writer and his narrative techniques are pedestrian at best. But Wright does a good job of portraying the black experience and for that reason he is a must read.
Black Boy, unfortunately, tells both the difficulties Wright experienced growing up in the South early in the Twentieth Century and the difficulties Wright experienced as an adult in Chicago before World War II. I understand that the Chicago years were important to relate, especially the author’s involvement with the Communist Party, but the two narratives were sufficiently different that it might have been better to make them separate books. In the first part Wright successfully gives the reader a strong sense about the evils of Jim Crow and the constant fear that black people lived with … fear for their lives. The reader can live alongside the narrator in hunger and poverty and hopefully empathize with the treatment black people received even after they were declared equal citizens by an amendment to the United States Constitution.
But when Wright moves with his family to Chicago, the struggle gets lost in the narration of the author’s Communist activities. Furthermore, I did not feel Wright sufficiently explained or justified his involvement in the Communist Party. I suppose there is anassumed attraction of socialism at the time of this country’s Great Depression, but Wright never really gives a convincing argument for his own attraction to the Communist Party.
An interesting, albeit small, revelation that comes out of the novel is the narrative showing Wright’s development as an author. He suggests that his writing was influenced by such writers as Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, H. L. Menckin and even , Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Wikipedia provides a good introduction to Richard Wright and an excellent bibliography I have excerpted below. Note that the bibliography shows Black Boy under non-fiction but we all know that it’s all fiction, right?
Richard Wright: Early Works (Arnold Rampersad, ed.) (Library of America, 1989),
Richard Wright: Later Works (Arnold Rampersad, ed.) (Library of America, 1991).
Native Son: The Biography of a Young American with Paul Green (New York: Harper, 1941)
Uncle Tom’s Children (New York: Harper, 1938)
The Man Who Was Almost a Man (New York: Harper, 1939)
Native Son (New York: Harper, 1940)
The Outsider (New York: Harper, 1953)
Savage Holiday (New York: Avon, 1954)
The Long Dream (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1958)
Eight Men (Cleveland and New York: World, 1961)
Lawd Today (New York: Walker, 1963)
Rite of Passage (New York: Harper Collins, 1994)
A Father’s Law (London: Harper Perennial, 2008)
How “Bigger” Was Born; Notes of a Native Son (New York: Harper, 1940)
12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (New York: Viking, 1941)
Black Boy (New York: Harper, 1945)
Black Power (New York: Harper, 1954)
The Color Curtain (Cleveland and New York: World, 1956)
Pagan Spain (New York: Harper, 1957)
Letters to Joe C. Brown (Kent State University Libraries, 1968)
American Hunger (New York: Harper & Row, 1977)
Black Power: Three Books from Exile: “Black Power”; “The Color Curtain”; and “White Man, Listen!” (Harper Perennial, 2008)
The Ethics Of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch (1937)
Introduction to Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945)
I Choose Exile (1951)
White Man, Listen! (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1957)
Blueprint for Negro Literature (New York City, New York) (1937)
The God that Failed (contributor) (1949)
Haiku: This Other World (eds. Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener; Arcade, 1998.)