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Predetermined Place: Race, Gender, And Class In Black Boy

2380 words - 10 pages

Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth recounts the author’s personal experience growing up as an African American male in the Jim Crow South, as well as his initial years in the North in the late 1920s. While it is a personal account of one man’s life in this time period, Wright’s memoir also sheds light on the broader role of black men in American society in the early twentieth century, particularly with respect to race, gender, and class relations. By no accident, insight on these relations can be gleaned from the title of Wright’s memoir itself. I argue that Wright chose the provocative title Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth in order to both utilize shock value and explicitly draw attention to the characteristics that had defined him his entire life, with or without his consent. In choosing this particular title, Wright was making the statement that at the turn of the 20th century, being a member of the African American race greatly determined one’s gender role and class in American society, while simultaneously impacting his or her daily conditions of existence and future aspirations. In order to demonstrate how Wright’s title selection speaks to these issues, I will analyze, in turn, the title’s implications regarding race, gender, and class for American black males in the early 1900s.
First, in terms of race relations, the use of the term “Black Boy” in the memoir’s title speaks to the fact that for Wright, as well as many other African Americans at this time, being black literally defined him above all else. Mainly during his years in the Jim Crow South, the color of Wright’s skin was the single most determining factor of every aspect of his life, from what jobs he could hold, to what words he could speak, to the relationships he held with others. Society only acknowledged any other notable characteristics, such as skills or personality, in relation to Wright’s blackness, as his blackness was the first quality others noticed. As a black individual in this day, there was a very clear role one was to adopt— one of subservience, ignorance, and utmost respectfulness— and the fact that Wright did not fit into this racial role caused him great difficulty throughout his life.
This experience was not unique to Wright, however; it was a reality felt by many blacks sharing his time and place. Wright was growing up in the Jim Crow era in the South, when, despite the North having won the Civil War, blacks had been successfully segregated by law and custom in “practically every conceivable situation in which whites and blacks might come into social contact”. This was a time when signs dictating where blacks could and could not walk, eat, live, and enter were everywhere, impacting the daily lives of black Americans and shaping their mannerisms to a huge degree. Wealth, skill, and personality did not matter; if one’s skin was black, one was subject to these laws and...

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